Europa League Group D
However, should AZ lose to Zenit in Holland on the final night, a 1-1 draw for Dundalk in Israel would still be enough to see the Stephen Kenny’s team through. On the other hand, Dundalk could win in Tel Aviv and still go out.
An out of sorts Lilywhites would scarcely have deserved the point they fought for right to the end last night, with busy ‘keeper Gary Rogers to thank for ensuring the visitors didn’t copperfasten their victory well before the final whistle.
There had been good news for Dundalk on two fronts before kick-off, with Zenit beating Maccabi 2-0 in St Petersburg followed by confirmation, when the team sheets materialised in Tallaght, that injury doubts Ronan Finn and captain Stephen O’Donnell were deemed fit to start. Upfront, Stephen Kenny opted for Ciaran Kilduff instead of David McMillan to spearhead the attack, hoping no doubt that the striker would repeat his feat of getting on the score sheet against AZ, having helped his side burgle that sensational late point in Holland in September.
Martin O’Neill, Roy Keane and – keeping an eye on Daryl Horgan – Ipswich Town manager Mick McCarthy were among the full house in a chilly Tallaght Stadium for what was Dundalk’s 11th game in Europe this season and 50th competitive match in all, a real test of their stamina and strength in depth as much as anything else. Although the Dutch visitors were badly in need of a win to belatedly jumpstart their group campaign, manager John van der Brom had warned against anxiety undermining good organisation in his team, pointing out in his pre-match press conference that AZ didn’t need to try to win the game in the first ten minutes.
But in just the 9th minute, their number 9, the towering Wout Weghorst, did just that, Dundalk’s generally rusty opening spell reflected in the failure of first Andy Boyle and then Dane Massey to clear a curling cross into the box, Weghorst gratefully availing of the gift of the ball falling at his feet off Massey’s thigh to finish from close range.
Not for the first time in Europe, Dundalk had conceded a horribly sloppy goal but it was their failure to establish any kind of foothold in the game which was perhaps even more alarming, the sluggishness of their movement on and off the ball entirely out of character. There was also the fact that AZ were pressing the Dundalk players relentlessly, the red shirts quick to close down space in midfield and prevent key figures like O’Donnell, Finn and Horgan from developing the play.
But, coming up to the half-hour mark, the Lilywhites belatedly began to awake from their slumber and, for the remaining fifteen minutes of the first half, were back to something closer to themselves, applying the kind of sustained pressure which, but for some less than clinical finishing, might well have seen them level.
Horgan, with some telling flicks and incisive passes came close to opening up the Dutch rearguard and Ronan Finn too began to impose himself, his drive and skill forcing one corner from which Kilduff should have done much better with a free header. Then, after Finn himself had rifled one from 25 yards which flew over the angle of post and crossbar, Kilduff came even closer with a downward header just wide o f the post from a Horgan free.
The Dundalk faithful finally had something to cheer about but the growing mood of optimism was rudely punctured three minutes before half-time when O’Donnell’s injury woes caught up with him, the skipper handing the armband to Andy Boyle as John Mountney came off the bench.
AZ regained the ascendancy after the break. In the 50th minute a brilliant save by Gary Rogers denied Weghorst from directly in front of goal and the ‘keeper was required to perform more heroics as the night wore on to keep Dundalk’s hopes alive.
But despite digging deep and giving it their all at the other end in the final ten minutes, they couldn’t get the breakthrough which would have given them a share of the points and kept their Europa League fate in their own hands.
Rogers, Gannon, Boyle, Gartland, Massey, O’Donnell (Mountney 41), Benson, McEleney (Shiels 79), Finn, Horgan, Kilduff (McMillan 76).
Rochet, Johansson, Vlaar, Wuytens, Haps, Luckassen, Seuntjens, Rienstra, Jahanbakhsh (Dos Santos 75), Weghorst (Friday 86), Tankovic (Ouwejan 78).
Istvan Vad (Hungary)