Dundalk beaten but precious away goal keeps Champions League hopes alive
DUNDALK kept their Champions League hopes alive by falling to a defeat by the narrowest margin against classy BATE Borisov.
The League of Ireland champions had reason to feel satisfied after a scoreless second half to set up a thriller in Oriel Park next Wednesday with €1.2 million at stake but they will be frustrated by the goals they conceded in a dramatic first half where they might have scored more than once.
BATE, a quality outfit who expect to qualify for the group stages again this term, will know more about Stephen Kenny's underdogs after this exercise.
But there were a mood of apprehension in the lavish Borisov Arena at full time following a tie where this young Dundalk side showed they can mix it in this company.
The only sore point was that BATE didn't have to work hard for their goals.
Before the game, members of the Dundalk party had rolled out the familiar cliche that any mistakes would be punished at this level. It isn’t always the case; good teams can miss chances too. But, on this occasion, BATE demonstrated ruthless efficiency to punish the first mistake from the visitors in their own half.
Chris Shields was the culprit, turning into trouble and sloppily giving the ball away. BATE seized the moment with experienced international striker Vitali Rodionov releasing Aleksandr Karnitski with a perfectly timed pass that was met with a right footed strike of equal precision. Gary Rogers had no chance.
It was a punch in the stomach for Dundalk after a purposeful start from a selection which contained a few surprises. Ronan Finn lost out for the return of Shields to add solidity next to Stephen O’Donnell in midfield. John Mountney got the nod ahead of Darren Meenan on the right, essentially to curb the threat of BATE left full Filip Mladenovic who really functions as an auxiliary winger.
Andy Boyle was passed fit to partner Brian Gartland in the centre of defence, and the latter felt unwell on the day of the match which potentially made this a problem area. But they regrouped after the early concession and attention switched to the other half of the field as Dundalk began to make serious inroads.
Yet they were unable to take their first big chance when the overlapping Richie Towell collected a O’Donnell pass and swung in a cross that culminated with Dave McMillan blasting over an empty net after his initial header rebounded back in his direction. But the horror miss galvanised the League of Ireland champions and they threatened again when Dane Massey’s header from a Horgan corner was brilliantly saved by keeper Sergei Chernik.
When Towell and Horgan ran at the home rearguard, they didn’t enjoy it and the volume levels dropped as the border club started to ping the ball around and steadily build attacks.
They deserved the equaliser that came their way, even if it was created by an attempted BATE tackle on Horgan that sent the ball into the path of the grateful McMillan who calmly slotted the ball under Chernik to atone for his earlier error.
The travelling fans were in dreamland, a state which lasted for just five minutes even if Dundalk’s journey from rock bottom three years ago to this incredible arena is an achievement in itself. This time, BATE enjoyed a fortunate deflection as a speculative effort from Evgeni Yablonski from outside the area came off Shields to wrong foot the helpless Rogers.
It meant that the Irishmen started the second half playing catch-up, with the movement of the tidy Igor Stasevich and Mikhail Gordeichuk BATE’s main threat in general play. They were angry too, accusing Rodionov of a headbutt on Massey immediately after the fortuitous goal with Dundalk hopeful UEFA will take action.
Rodionov was furious with himself for an errant touch in a period before the hour mark where Dundalk rode their luck at the back. He would have been through on goal if he’d controlled a clearance that travelled a considerable distance.
Towell was also guilty of fluffing his lines from a Massey centre, but Dundalk adventure was leaving gaps and a set piece arising from a break culminated with Rogers stopping a Nemanja Milunovic header. Boyle was called into action for a last ditch stop as the Belarusians pressed again.
As the clock ticked into the final quarter, Dundalk were in a position where 2-1 was an acceptable result with signs of fatigue creeping in after a serious effort. Darren Meenan was sent in and then Ronan Finn who operated in an unfamiliar striking role in place of McMillan.
Timely interceptions from Sean Gannon and solid keeping from Rogers kept BATE at bay and there was whistles from the stands as a series of Dundalk injuries slowed play down with the imperious O’Donnell emptying the gas tank. The small band of away fans were delighted when the Serbian ref brought an end to proceedings. They will spend the next week salivating over the prospect of an improbable progression.
BATE Borisov: Chernik, Zhavnerchik, Dubra, Milunovic, Mladenovic; Baga (Nikolic 64), Yablonski; Stasevich, Garnitski, Gordeichuk (Rios 81); Rodionov
Dundalk: Rogers, Gannon, Boyle, Gartland, Massey; Shields, O’Donnell; Mountney (Meenan 70), Towell, Horgan (Byrne 88); McMillan (Finn 77)
Ref: Vlado Glodjovic (Serbia)