Gutsy Dundalk will go to Azerbaijan next week with a genuine opportunity of reaching the third qualifying round of the Champions League.
Patrick Hoban’s header 12 minutes from the end saw them claim a well-deserved draw with Qarabag at Oriel Park last night.
While this result looked unlikely after a first half in which the SSE Airtricity League leaders were ran ragged by their opponents, they upped the ante in the second half and arguably should have won the tie in the end.
A sell out crowd witnessed a stirring performance from the Louth men, who showed they weren’t willing to roll over and accept defeat to a side who have reached the group stages of the Europa League in four of the last five seasons and the Champions League in the other.
While the visitors looked in control in the opening half, they will have been happy to get back to Baku with a draw as Dundalk threatened what would have gone down as one of the great European upsets.
Vinny Perth had spoken in the build-up about the need for his side to keep their concentration and avoid any mistakes. He would no doubt have been kicking himself at the manner in which his side fell behind after just four minutes.
Sean Hoare’s attempted back pass from all of 40 yards away was overhit at the expense of a corner which Dundalk defended poorly as Jaime Romero’s delivery was headed home by the unmarked Emreli.
It could have been a little different had Dundalk taken their own chance from a corner a minute earlier when Michael Duffy’s deep delivery was headed just over by Andy Boyle.
After the early concession, the rest of the half was largely spent trying to prevent Gurban Gurbanov’s side from adding a second. They almost did on six minutes when a loose pass from Chris Shields saw the lively Abdellah Zoubir release Emreli on the left whose cross was headed just wide by Simeon Slavchev.
Dundalk did have a half chance on 13 minutes when Sean Gannon’s cross took a horrible bounce which deceived Vagner but Duffy was unable to take advantage before the goalkeeper gathered at the second attempt.
Qarabag continued to pose the main threat with the home side’s hopes hit on 27 minutes when Robbie Benson was forced off with a rib injury.
Slavchev, Richard Almeida and Zoubir would all fire wide after that before Gary Rogers – making a record 42nd European appearance for a League of Ireland player on the night – kept his side in the game with a brilliant stop to deny Slavchev after he had been slipped in by Zoubir.
The Lilywhites then survived another scare a minute before the break when Romero’s corner was kept alive by Ailton allowing the unmarked Emreli to head goalward once more but he was denied a second by a goal line clearance from Hoban.
There was a renewed spirit from the home side in the second half with Patrick McEleney firing over after a good pull back from Hoban on 54 minutes before Slavchev was called into action to block from substitute Sean Murray.
Qarabag continued to pose a threat on the break and probably could have killed it on 71 minutes when Rogers pushed a shot from Romero away with Almeida firing over from the rebound.
Jamie McGrath then won the vital corner which led to the equaliser on 78 minutes when he won a 50/50 challenge with Rahil Mammadov only to see his effort deflect wide off the defender. Murray’s delivery was superb with the corner coming off Slavchev before the alert Hoban steered a header home from point blank range.
Dundalk could then have won it late on with a series of chances. McGrath fired straight at Vagner from Gannon’s cross before Dane Massey somehow fired over from Hoare’s flick on in the 92nd minute. Then right at the death Duffy broke free only to see his shot pushed around the post by Vagner.
It’s all to play for and while Qarabag are still red-hot favourites to advance, they now know they’re in a tie.
DUNDALK: Rogers; Gannon, Hoare, Boyle, Massey; Shields, Benson (Murray 27); McGrath, McEleney (Mountney 69), Duffy; Hoban (G Kelly 83).
QARABAG: Vagner; Medvedev (Huseynov 53), Mammadov, Sadygov, Ailton; Garayev; Slavchev, Almeida; Romero (Abdullayev 87), Emreli, Zoubir.
Referee: Bartosz Frankowski (Poland).