Dundalk in dreamland
Published 03/08/2016 | 02:30
Dundalk are aiming for the Champions League after an extraordinary performance in Tallaght knocked group stage regulars BATE Borisov out of the tournament
The League of Ireland champions are guaranteed at least €5.6m following a stunning 3-0 win that could open the door to even greater riches if they can make it through one more tie and qualify for Europe's most prestigious and lucrative competition.
If the Lilywhites lose in the final playoff round, they will go into the group stages of the Europa League but they are refusing to think in those terms with Dundalk winger Daryl Horgan making that clear in the aftermath of a remarkable success.
"The Europa League is not coming into my mind," said the Galwegian. "It's Champions League all the way. We're two games away from it and we've knocked out a side that qualifies regularly. If we play like that two more times, we could easily be in the group stages."
After a 1-0 loss in the first leg in Belarus, Dundalk needed a composed display to turn things around and goals either side of half-time from the in-form Dave McMillan put them in control.
He has scored five goals in four Champions League starts this year and is now at the top of the all-time League of Ireland charts in Europe's main club tournament. Robbie Benson's late insurance strike prompted wild celebrations at Dundalk's temporary abode.
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill was present at the game and came into the Dundalk dressing room afterwards to pay tribute to Stephen Kenny's heroes. He singled out inspirational captain Stephen O'Donnell for special praise.
"He came in and said congratulations, he was very kind and very impressed with our game and rightly so," said Horgan.
"We played very well. He was especially congratulatory to Stevie - he was unbelievable. One of the best performances by a League of Ireland player in a European tie. He was absolutely incredible.
"We've outplayed a team that is a regular in the Champions League group stages. We went away last week and had a horror show. They were far better. We've come back and turned it around."
An emotional Kenny showered praise on his players after gaining revenge on the side that knocked them out 12 months ago.
"It's a brilliant performance and incredible night for Dundalk Football Club," said the Dubliner who oversaw a victory over BATE as Bohemians boss in 2003 before the Belarusians evolved into a serious force.
They were aiming to make the Champions League group stages for the third year in a row and for the sixth time since their breakthrough in 2009.
Dundalk were presented with a stiff task after failing to register an away goal in a difficult first meeting but Kenny knew that the back to back league winners were capable of producing a much more polished display.
"We got a bit of a chasing in Belarus but tonight we saw a brilliant football performance by players who believe in themselves and did their talents full justice.
"We're in the fourth round now so we want to go into the Champions League and that's the way we should look at it.
"We are delighted because we know we're in the group stages of European competition which is amazing for a club with the facilities we have and a club our size. To be in the group stages of European competition with all those massive clubs is a bit special.
Dundalk will learn their next opponents on Friday. Possible opponents include APOEL Nicosia (Cyprus), Victoria Plzen (Czech Republic) and Celtic if they progress past Astana tonight. Greek champions Olympiacos and Austrian big guns Red Bull Salzburg are the other likely options if they can get through their respective ties later today.