And so it has arrived: D for Dundalk day, as the Lilywhites look to go where no Irish club has gone before by qualifying for the group stage of the Champions League.
Having stunned European football by beating BATE Borisov 3-1 on aggregate in the last round, Dundalk will now have to defy the odds again by overcoming Polish champions Legia Warsaw. But, amidst all the anticipation of tonight’s game at the Aviva Stadium – or the Dublin Arena, as sponsor-sensitive UEFA insist on calling it – it’s easy to forget that, barring an emphatic victory for either side, the matter is unlikely to be settled at Lansdowne Road.
This is a game of four halves, as it were, and Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny is determined his players don’t get ahead of themselves.
Given the distorting influence of the away goal in European competition, there will be many who would counsel that, if the underdogs can’t actually win the tie tonight, then the priority should be not to lose it.
But Kenny insists that, in consciously taking it one game at a time, he wants his team to play to their ample strengths this evening.
“The fear of losing it in the first leg, I don’t think you can think like that,” the manager reflects. “You have to think we’re at home, playing well, we’ve had a good previous result and we’ve got to go out and play our natural game. But we cannot over-commit because Legia have fast wingers, they’re really quick, and we have to make sure we don’t leave ourselves over- exposed for a counter attack.
“But I think we’ve got to be positive in the way we think and we must believe we can score rather than be too fearful of conceding and just trying to stay in the game.
“In the BATE game in Tallaght, that was a pressure situation, a golden goal situation: if they score first then you pick up your coats and you go home.
“We’d have needed to score three against a team that sits off you, and that was a fair degree of pressure in that regard. But the players coped with it well and limited their chances against us without being too defensive.
“You can have a sort of big picture view, and say 0-0 and go through on a score draw (away). I know that’s the point someone can make but we’re not thinking like that. We’re thinking: we have an opportunity, let’s play as well as we can play and make sure we don’t concede and carry a real attacking threat.”
The 3-0 second leg defeat of BATE – a team ranked higher than Legia by UEFA – might provide the template but the Polish side, Kenny stresses, will pose a different kind of test.
“BATE’s co-efficient is a lot higher than Legia’s but that doesn’t mean one in stronger than the other,” he observes. “They have different qualities. BATE could keep the ball all day. Their retention of possession is terrific and they have implemented a lot of Barcelona’s and Bayern Munich’s thinking.
“Legia, on the other hand, have a lot of pace in their team and power. We’ve a different challenge and it’s one we have to embrace.
“You don’t want to be fearful going into these games, you want to be positive in how you approach it. Give credit to Legia Warsaw, they’ve been in the Europa League group stages continually though they haven’t been in the Champions League group stages. We respect the quality they’ve got, with the players they had in the Euros and so forth but, at the same time, it’s a fantastic game for us and a great opportunity to try and put in a great performance.”
The elephant in the room is that, since the acclaimed win over BATE, the Irish champions have endured shock back to back league defeats for the first time in three years, although skipper Stephen O’Donnell argued yesterday Dundalk’s performances in both games — against Galway United and Bray Wanderers — were better than the results, and insisted that confidence has not be dented going into tonight’s big game. Mind, Legia, under new manager Besnik Hasi, have not exactly been tearing up trees on the home front either, losing one, drawing one and failing to score in their last two league games.
Their travelling support this evening, of around 700, should be swelled by fans drawn from the Polish community here, while Dundalk’s faithful will be joined by thousands from across the game in Ireland in a crowd which, it is predicted, could reach 30,000.
And there will be many more well-wishers watching live coverage on RTÉ 2 and hoping that the Irish champions can take the first of two steps – two giant steps – into history.
“It’s a wonderful occasion,” Stephen Kenny agrees. You’re proud to be a part of it and it’s a privilege to be a part of it but, at the same time we want it to be for the right reason. And the right reason is getting the result that we all want.”
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