All of the pressure is on Dundalk ahead of the meeting of the top two at Tallaght Stadium on Sunday.
At several times throughout this season, I have felt the title race was over and Rovers should be handed the trophy. But draws against Drogheda United and Derry City have given Dundalk hope that they could defy the odds and become champions for the first time since 2019.
But anything other than a victory will realistically end the title race. It will be no easy feat. Rovers are undefeated at home including in Europe. But the fixture being sandwiched between the Hoops’ Europa League qualifiers with Ferencváros must improve Dundalk’s chances.
On European nights; there is a special atmosphere in Tallaght. At league games, apart from when Bohemians visit, the crowd can be subdued. After first-leg disappointment last night that’s even more likely to be the case. Dundalk must use this to their advantage.
Normally, a team is encouraged to come out of the blocks quickly and impose a high tempo in the match. I would argue that Dundalk’s best approach would be to allow Rovers to keep possession in areas that wouldn’t be considered dangerous. The Hoops players will be happy to keep passing the ball across the back.
Stephen O’Donnell should instruct his players to stand off Rovers and try and make this feel more like a training ground game.
A non-spectacle where the crowd remains quiet, lure Rovers players into going through the motions.
The Lilywhites will have to be patient with this gameplan, convince Rovers they are happy with a draw and then up the tempo to catch them off guard.
These Rovers players will have had their minds on the Europa League group stages. That prospect might now be realistically gone, but the first leg in Hungary will have been a chastening experience, the heat sapping a lot of energy from their legs.
Plus the travelling involved will be an advantage to Dundalk. Rovers had the inconvenience of flying out from Shannon airport to Hungary before making the return journey.
I’ve spoken about it before, those away European games can be mentally draining as well as physically draining. The last thing players want is to return home on a Friday after spending the majority of the week away, to then have to prepare themselves for a less glamorous League of Ireland fixture.
What Stephen Bradley used to do during my time with the club, when there was a condensed amount of fixtures, was to tell players who would not be starting one game that they will be involved in the next one.
He would have told four or five players days before the first leg game against Ferencváros, that they will be used against Dundalk and need to be ready.
I always thought that was excellent management, because it kept players onside and it meant that, mentally, those four or five players will be focusing more on the Dundalk game for a number of days.
I still expect Bradley to rest many of his star players against Dundalk. He will still want to put in a respectable performance in the European second leg. It wouldn’t be a complete disaster if the Hoops suffered a surprise defeat to Dundalk. They would be still one point ahead of the Lilywhites with a game in hand.
But there is no better time for O’Donnell’s men to face Rovers at Tallaght and try and end the Hoops’ unbeaten run.