After Dundalk had taken a giant step towards a third successive league title by beating Longford Town 3-0 on Monday night, Stephen Kenny surveyed a dressing room which resembled a field hospital more than a party zone, with players stretched out on benches nursing injuries or simply laid low by sheer fatigue, as a fourth game in 10 days took its toll.
“You look around and you’re thinking: ‘Jeez, we’re playing Zenit in two days, we’re in trouble’, the manager reflects. “You should be euphoric because you’re seven points clear but you’re not, you’re thinking: ‘How are we going to get right for a game in two days?’”
While a hamstring problem definitely rules skipper Stephen O’Donnell out of tonight’s Europa League meeting with the powerhouse club from St Petersburg, there are also doubts about John Mountney (back), Chris Shields (groin), and Sean Gannon (calf). All are “desperate to play”, says Kenny, but he knows he will have to make some difficult calls today if he is to ensure his side can do itself justice against a club which boasts 17 full internationals and which, as the Dundalk boss wryly notes, could afford to turn down an offer from Juventus of €20m for Axel Witsel, the player who was such a thorn in Ireland’s side when they lost 3-0 to Belgium in the Euros.
Dundalk’s onerous workload has also detracted from their practical build-up to tonight’s game in Tallaght.
“Our preparation couldn’t be any worse,” says Kenny, pointing out that in recent days his players have spent more time doing video analysis than on the training pitch.
But lest anyone make the mistake of thinking Kenny is trying to get his excuses in first, the Dundalk manager is quick to dispel any such notion. By yesterday, after two days of rest and recovery for the team, he admits that his innate optimism and belief in his side were overriding all his earlier concerns.
For him, this is not a night for self-pity or damage limitation: It’s a night for his exceptional side to go for glory again.
“We’ve a chance of going top of both leagues tonight,” is how he puts it. “That’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along often and you want to do your utmost to get there.
“We’ve worked so hard to get here. It’s a great event in people’s lives. This is a period players can reflect upon in 10 years’ time and really think: ‘This was a special season’. There is a real sense of history about the whole thing and tonight is an occasion the players should relish.”
If they are to do that, Kenny is adamant team must play to their own considerable strengths rather than cramp their style in a bid to contain Zenit’s formidable attack.
“We have to carry the spirit of adventure we’ve shown in all the games,” he says. “We can’t be worried about the strengths of Zenit. The way they play, they’re so attacking that they force teams on the defensive. There’s an in-joke in the group about ‘the low block’, the defensive thing that they’re all using now. It’s a back four with the two wide players playing outside of that so it gives you a six, a three and a one. Zenit force teams to play like that.
“But we’re not playing the low block, alright? I think if you play that way there’s an inevitability that you lose. That’s not what our success has been based on. Our success has been based on greater ambition than that and we mustn’t lose that ambition. We have to be adventurous in our approach.”
Zenit come into tonight’s game as Group D leaders and joint top with Spartak Moscow in the Russian Premier League. Since energy giant Gazprom began pumping multi-millions into the club in 2005, they have won the Uefa Cup, reached the knockout stage of the Champions League three times and been league champions on four occasions.
But although unbeaten so far this season, they did show unexpected vulnerability in their Europa League game against Maccabi Tel Aviv, going three goals down before staging a remarkable comeback to win 4-3.
The first question from a visiting Russian journalist to Zenit’s Artem Dyzuba yesterday referred to their opponents tonight as “a team from a different stratosphere” although, in reply, the striker was more inclined to categorise Dundalk as something altogether more familiar — “a British-style team who like long passes”. If that hardly chimes with the reality of how Kenny’s team go about their business, it doesn’t mean group favourites are taking anything for granted. “We are here to win but we know we can’t win without fighting,” added Dyzuba.
And while coach Mircea Lucecu admitted with a smile that he’d never heard of Dundalk before drawing them in the Europa League, he has since gotten up to speed, hailing their “clever, strong play” against BATE and Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“But I expect to win,” he went on. “That is normal with Zenit. It won’t be easy but we have to do it.”
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