Stephen Kenny: Dundalk still look good to qualify for Europa League knock-out stages

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny insists his side remain in a “good position” to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Europa League despite being left cursing their luck for the second time in a fortnight after losing out to Zenit St Petersburg in a snow-covered Petrovsky Stadium last night.

Stephen Kenny: Dundalk still look good to qualify for Europa League knock-out stages

Just as in Tallaght two weeks ago, an error rather than brilliance proved their undoing against the Russians with the woodwork providing the ‘what might have been’ moment in either half.

Kenny’s side had been defensively brilliant for 42 minutes until Brian Gartland was caught in possession by Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who teed up Giuliano for the opener. The League of Ireland champions dared to dream, however, when Daryl Horgan equalised seven minutes into the second-half.

However, a scrappy second from Giuliano in the 78th minute dashed their hopes of a point just as he had done in Tallaght, with Kenny admitting it was “difficult to take”. He said: “Daryl’s equaliser deserved a result from any game. We got punished for giving the ball away twice, which is not like us, but Patrick McEleney’s effort off the post and bar was very unlucky. That was the margin.”

The one consolation for the Lilywhites was they remain in contention for a place in the last 32 with two games to go.

“If we had drawn tonight and Maccabi had won we’d have been on five (points) and they’d have been on six so it’s in our own hands going into the last two games. We’re in a good position,” said Kenny.

It was a brave resistance for much of the first-half from Dundalk but they could have found themselves ahead with the game’s opening chance on 13 minutes when John Mountney’s cross from the right looped over the head of goalkeeper Mikhail Kerzhakov before coming back off the post. Zenit began to build-up a head of steam after that with Gary Rogers having to tip a 20 yard strike from Oleg Shatov over the bar five minutes later. The vistors rode their luck on 34 minutes when Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who had scuffed an effort at Rogers moments earlier, turned provider for Shatov who met his effort more sweetly only to see it turned behind by Dane Massey. Rogers then came to his side’s rescue on 36 minutes by saving at close range from Giuliano.

Just when it looked like Dundalk had weathered the storm though, they shot themselves in the foot on 42 minutes. Gartland’s short free was played back to him by Chris Shields, with the centre half then caught in possession by Kerzhakov who raced clear before squaring to Giuliano to slot home.

Ironically, it was a mistake at the other end which would lead to the equaliser seven minutes after the restart with Domenico Criscito’s poor header allowing Horgan to break from halfway before cutting across two defenders to fire to the net. It rocked the Russians who again began to pile the pressure on with Rogers brilliant again to deny Mauricio on 62 minutes before Nicolas Lombaerts pulled Aleksandr Anyukov’s cross wide a minute later.

Axel Witsel then went inches away with a long range effort on 70 minutes before the killer blow arrived eight minutes later. Once again Dundalk would prove their own worst enemy though as, despite numerous chances, they failed to clear their lines following a game of pinball in their own area with Giuliano firing home from close range after Kerzhakov’s cross was kept alive by Mauricio.

To their credit, Dundalk refused to throw in the towel and with eight minutes to go they went inches away from a second equaliser after McEleney’s effort came back off the bar. A case of so close but yet so far yet again.

They might have taken no points from their two matches with Zenit but they can certainly take plenty of heart.

ZENIT ST PETERSBURG:

M Kerzhakov; Anyukov, Luis Neto, Lombaerts (Zhirkov 88), Criscito; Witsel, Guiliano, Mauricio; Kokorin, A Kerzhakov (Djordevic 92), Shatov (Mak 68).

DUNDALK:

Rogers; Gannon, Gartland, Boyle, Massey; Shields; Mountney (O’Donnell HT), McEleney (Shiels 83), Finn, Horgan; McMillan (Kilduff 65).

Referee:

L Banti (Italy).

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