Legia Warsaw 1 Dundalk 1 (Legia win 3-1 on aggregate): The door to history and the Champions League briefly appeared before Dundalk in Warsaw last night before slamming shut in their faces in the cruelest of ways.
Trailing 2-0 from the first leg in Dublin, few people gave Stephen Kenny’s side hope of overturning the deficit at the Polish Army Stadium. Only two others sides had managed such a feat in the last five years of European competition, while no Irish side had ever achieved it.
However, a stunning 19th minute strike from Robbie Benson relit the Louth club’s Champions League ambitions and had a Legia Warsaw side with far greater stature trembling for more than an hour.
Everything looked to be swinging in the League of Ireland side’s favour when the Polish champions had full back Adam Hlou?sek sent off with 23 minutes to go but the second goal that would have taken this tie to extra-time never arrived. In the end, the search for it even denied Dundalk a famous win as Michal Kucharczyk broke in the second minute of stoppage time to hammer home a dagger to the heart of their Champions League ambitions.
The visitors can return to Ireland today with their heads held high though. They have produced one of the great Irish European football journeys, one that will still now continue into the Europa League group stages when the draw is made on Friday.
It was the brilliant Benson who had inspired Dundalk’s bright start with a lung- busting run from midfield on seven minutes that drew a late tackle from Vadis Odjidja which earned the former Norwich City a man a yellow card.
Daryl Horgan stepped up to take the resultant free kick but despite curling it over the wall it was straight at goalkeeper Arkadiusz Malarz.
Dundalk were always aware they would have to take a risk or two if they were going to pull off the footballing equivalent of a miracle and they were almost caught out five minutes later. Patrick McEleney’s corner attempted to pick out Ronan Finn at the edge of the area but was slightly behind the midfielder, meaning he had to lay it off to Horgan. The winger’s attempted cross was then charged down by Michal Kucharczyk, who broke down the left before playing a crossfield pass to Nemanja Nikolic. However tt was that man again, Benson, who came to Dundalk’s rescue by getting back to toe poke the ball away from the Hungarian international.
Then came his stunning opener on 19 minutes. A throw-in on the right by Sean Gannon was returned to him by McEleney with his deep cross kept alive by the head of David McMillan. Benson then came storming onto the dropping ball like a freight train at the edge of the area, meeting it first-time on the volley to send it flying to the top right hand corner of the net.
Suddenly, it was game on.
The visitors had goalkeeper Gary Rogers to thank for keeping them ahead just four minutes later though as he pulled off a superb save to keep out Adam Hlou?sek’s shot with the outside of his left foot from just outside the box. There were further long range efforts from Kucharczyk and Thibault Moulin late in the half but both were dealt with comfortably by Rogers as the Legia fans jeered their side off at the break.
Despite soaking up some early pressure in the second half, Dundalk almost got the crucial second they craved on 63 minutes when Horgan’s cross from the right was kept alive by the head of McMillan with Benson’s bicycle kick attempt just over.
Their hopes were then given a major shot in the arm just four minutes later though when Hlou?sek was shown a second yellow card for pulling down Finn after losing possession.
Despite that the Lilywhites were left breathing a huge sigh of relief on the restart when Tomasz Jodlowiec weaved his way into the box only for his back heel towards the penalty spot to fail to find a team-mate before being cleared by Horgan.
Four minutes later Horgan burst from midfield to create an opening for the visitors but despite teeing up McEleney to the right of the area the Derry man’s shot was tame and easy for Malarz.
Legia had a chance to seal the game two minutes from the end when Kucharczyk picked out substitute Guilherme at the edge of the area only for his shot to be parried by Rogers.
Kucharczyk did put the game beyond doubt in the second minute of stoppage time though, catching Dundalk on the break to high to the net. The dream was over but what an effort it was to make it real.
Malarz; Bro´z, Pazdan, Lewczuk, Hlou?sek; Langil (Guilherme 65), Jodlowiec,, Odjidja, Moulin, Kucharczyk; Nikoli´c (Bereszy´nski 71)
Subs not used:
Cierzniak, Kopczy´nski, Hämäläinen, Alexandrov, Prijovic.
Rogers; Gannon, Barrett, Boyle, Massey; Shields (Meenan 83); McEleney (M O’Connor 88) Finn, Benson, Horgan; McMillan.
Subs not used:
Sava, Gartland, Mountney, Grimes, Poynton.
Svein Oddvar Moen (Norway).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved