Rovers Top Group After Alloa Draw
The vast majority of Raith Rovers fans could have been forgiven if they were feeling a sense of deja-vu this Saturday afternoon.
After all, for the majority of them, this would be the second time this summer they’ve cheered on a home side in the final game of group stage, needing a positive result to progress to the knock-out round.
Unlike Scotland in the European Championships however, Raith did what was necessary, but it was tense for a while, with a penalty-shoot out win over Alloa after a 0-0 draw enough for them to top the group from Livingston, who triumphed over Cowdenbeath to secure second spot.
Manager John McGlynn made one change from the side which drew 0-0 with Premiership side Livi in midweek, with Blaise Riley-Snow dropping to the bench for Matej Poplatnik, who was unable to play for his parent club on Wednesday evening.
Alloa started Adam King in the middle of the park, who had featured on loan for Rovers latterly last term, and while they announced the signing of Fernandy Mendy earlier in the afternoon, the Guinea Biseau international was forced to isolate after travelling back from France.
There was the customary boo from the Raith fans when they lost the toss and were forced to change ends and attack the Penman Family Stand in the first half, but it didn’t appear to do them too much harm, as they were immediately on the front foot.
Dario Zanatta found himself on the end of a sclaffed kick out from Wasps ‘keeper, David Hutton, but with few options in the area, he slightly hesitated, and his cross into the box was gathered by a grateful Hutton.
It was all Raith in the opening few minutes, and the left-hand side was proving a productive one, with Zanatta and full-back Liam Dick getting four crosses into the area in the opening five minutes, which Alloa repelled, but only just.
Alloa had a chance of their own in the seventh minute however, when Scott Taggart was able to line up a free-kcik 25-yards from goal, and while his effort was well struck, Jamie MacDonald was able to gather at the second attempt.
After the initial 10 minutes or so when Rovers were very much in the ascendency, the game started to settle down, and while Alloa were struggling to create chances of their own, they were at least starting to get their foot on the ball in the middle of the park, and at the same time, stymie Rovers advances.
Rovers perhaps should have taken the lead in the 20th minute, when the ball broke to Lewis Vaughan on the left-hand side of the penalty area, and while he was able to pick out Zanatta running in on goal, his first time effort from 15-yards and at an angle was fired over the bar.
Connor Sammon and Christophe Berra was proving to be a good contest, with both men involved in more grappling than a run-of-the-mill wrestling bout, with neither combatant able to land the decisive blow.
Rovers were continuing to press, and Aidan Connolly was the next to come close, forcing a good save from David Hutton, after he got on the end of a ball on the left-hand side of the area, but the Alloa custodian did well to tip wide.
Rovers were looking very much the livelier side, but with cross after cross being cleared, they were always open to a counter attack, and Steven Boyd almost exploited things in the 36th minute, when he scampered away down the right, and while he was left on his own, and with defenders up against him, he did well to get a shot off that just drifted wide.
Rovers must have delivered 20 crosses into the area in the opening half without capitalising, and it was another which brought about the next opportunity in the 40th minute, when a corner kick was met by Berra, but despite his downward header ending in a stramash, Alloa again did well to keep it out.
It was a move which summed up the first-half, with Rovers the dominant side, while Alloa were able to keep them at arm’s length.
It was more of the same at the start of the second period, with Rovers coming close again in the 52nd minute.
The chance appeared to be gone, when Zanatta cut inside and had a shot blocked, but Connolly picked up just outside the area, and his shot from 20-yards dipped just over Hutton but landed on the roof of the net.
Rovers were still leading the group at this stage, but only just, and with Livingston taking a 3-1 lead against Cowdenbeath, the group was just in danger of drifting away from Raith at this point.
A three goal win for Livingston would have left Rovers requiring a win, either through normal means or penalties, which meant Twitter updates from the Tony Macaroni Stadium were that bit more important.
Perhaps more concerningly though, Rovers were struggling to look quite as dominant in the second 45, with the visitors giving as good as they got, winning a couple of set pieces which admittedly went to waste.
Rovers had started the second half in a scrappy fashion, and that’s almost how they opened the scoring in the 67th minute, when Connolly’s corner kick was nearly turned in after a ding-dong in the area, but Andy Graham was on hand to eventually thump the ball clear.
With 20 minutes remaining, Rovers made two changes, with Poplatnik and Zanatta making way for James Keatings and Ethon Varian.
The game was still a little end-to-end for Rovers liking, although the switches had injected a little more urgency into their forward play, albeit without testing Hutton in the visiting goal.
Crosses were still the dominant tactic, but they’d failed to trouble the two Alloa central defenders of Andy Graham and Craig Howie up until this point, and the two were still doing a fine job as the corners and inswingers continued.
However, Alloa should have taken the lead in the 78th minute, when Sammon was put clear on the left-hand side, but his heavy touch meant he had to come back on himself, and while he still got a shot off, his angle was far narrower and MacDonald had things covered to deflect it wide.
Rovers then missed a gilt edged chance to go one up with five minutes remaining, when a corner kick from the left went right through a crowd of players and fell to Varian who was two yards out, but the ball seemed to hit off him and deflected over the bar.
That was as close at it got for Raith in the closing stages, and with the Livingston game still ongoing as referee, Greg Aitken blew for full-time, it was still unclear how vital the penalty shoot out was going to be.
However, as Sammon strode up to take the first penalty, Livingston’s 3-1 win was confirmed v Cowdenbeath, meaning Rovers were through regardless, which possibly put him off, as his duffed penalty was well saved by MacDonald.
The rest of the penalties were all far more confidently disptached, and Lewis Vaughan scored the decisive spot-kick to give Rovers the bonus point which meant they’d topped the group with nine points ahead of second placed Livinsgton.
Not only is the progression welcome, it was the first time Rovers have kept four consecutive clean sheets since a run of games across the Scottish Cup and League One in November and December 2019, and the hope is that defensive performance will continue against Hamilton in the Championship opener next weekend.
Raith will find out their opponent in the next round of the League Cup on Sunday, when the next round draw is made.
Photographs © Tony Fimister
John McGlynn spoke to RaithTV after the Premier Sports Cup fixture
Raith Rovers have the opportunity to do something they’ve never done this weekend, by qualifying from the group stages of the League Cup for the first time since they were reinstated in 2016.
Rovers may have missed out on a bonus point in midweek after losing to Livingston in a penalty shoot out, but the 0-0 draw was enough to keep Rovers top of the table by a point from Cowdenbeath, and a win this Saturday against Alloa Athletic will see John McGlynn’s men top the group.
Raith had a good record against Alloa last term, taking full points from the three meetings, as the Wasps ended the season bottom of the Championship table and being demoted to League One, and it’s been a summer of change down at the Indodrill.
Peter Grant left the club to take the managerial position at East End Park, with Barry Ferguson leaving Kelty Hearts to replace him.
There’s been a big turnover in the playing squad too, with amongst others, Mark Durnan and Conor Sammon both joining from Falkirk, while Adam King, who was on loan at Stark’s Park last season, has joined after leaving Dundee United.
Rovers are just edging it across the most recent fixtures, with four wins and three defeats from the last 10 fixtures.
Saturday’s match referee will be Greg Aitken.
Head-To-Head Cup Record Versus Alloa:
Raith Rovers Wins: 3 | Alloa Wins: 6 | Draws: 1
Raith Rovers Goals: 13 | Alloa Goals: 17
Raith Rovers: W-W-D
Raith Rovers: Brad Spencer 2 | Lewis Vaughan 2
Alloa: Scott Taggart 1 | Alan Trouten 1