Dundalk’s 3-0 victory over BATE Borisov in Tallaght was widely acclaimed as perhaps the best ever performance and result by an Irish club in European competition, writes Liam Mackey.
So perhaps the true measure of the task which faces them in the second leg of their Champions League play off against Legia Warsaw in Poland this evening is that, away from home, the SSE Airtricity League champions will have to effectively eclipse even that stunning achievement if they are to salvage their dream of becoming the first League of Ireland team to qualify for the group stages of the competition.
Despite matching the Polish champions for most of the game in Dublin, ultimately Dundalk had a night to forget in the first leg, the double-whammy of a harsh penalty decision and a goal conceded with the last kick of the night meaning they have to score twice to force extra time and three to win in the Polish Army Arena this evening.
But the visiting goalscorers who did the damage at the Aviva both insist that Legia will be taking nothing for granted, as they too seek to qualify for the Champions League group stages for the first time in what is the club’s centenary year.
Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikoli´c, who converted from the spot in the first leg — after Andy Boyle had been controversially penalised for handball — maintains there is still work to be done.
“We cannot lose focus or feel as if we are comfortably going to progress,” he warns, “it’s not over yet.”
Likewise, Aleksandar Prijovic, whose injury time goal rubbed salt in Dundalk’s wounds last week, notes that what was clearly for him a surprisingly impressive performance by Stephen Kenny’s team at the Aviva, means Legia can have no grounds for complacency despite their clear advantage going into the decisive leg.
“We had the perfect start to this play-off and it’s a big step forward for us, but the battle has not been won yet,” he says.
“Anything can happen in 90 minutes.
“We didn’t think Dundalk would be easy to beat. They place nice football — we were expecting long balls, but it was pleasantly surprising to see just how well they play.”
Such kind words will be scant consolation for a Dundalk side which paid a further penalty in that unforgiving first leg when a yellow card for Stephen O’Donnell ruled the inspirational skipper out of tonight’s match.
And while O’Donnell will, instead, be in the TV3 studio for their live coverage of the match this evening, another Dundalk player forced to miss out is striker Ciaran Kilduff who, in what manager Kenny yesterday called “a big setback”, injured a knee in training over the weekend and was unable to travel with the rest of the party to Warsaw.
The manager has one happier selection conundrum, however, which is decide if stalwart centre-half Brian Gartland, now fully recovered from a broken wrist, should reclaim his place in Dundalk’s starting 11.
And, despite the odds being stacked against the Lilywhites, Gartland’s team mate John Mountney insists that Irish champions can rise to the challenge and prevail tonight.
“We need to score first and really set the tie alive,” he says.
“We can go and be positive and get the result. We are so close to the group stages – we want to make a real go at it. The first goal is going to be massive. It has been a great experience so far and we want to experience more.”
In fact, whatever happens tonight, Dundalk will indeed experience more in Europe this season since, if they are eliminated from the Champions League, they will automatically go into the draw for the group stages of the Europa League.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.