Heroic Dundalk come up just short of a Champions League place despite gutsy effort in Warsaw
Legia Warsaw 1 Dundalk 1 (Legia win 3-1 on aggregate)
At the end, there was sympathetic applause for Dundalk from the locals when they would have preferred jeers.
Stephen Kenny’s side succeeded in muting Legia Warsaw’s big celebration by turning a coronation into a nervous night, but they had bigger plans than that.
The tale of this tie was the concession of a pair of injury-time goals in both legs that ultimately cost the League of Ireland champions dearly.
They kept this Champions League play-off alive until the last moment and will regret the second goal in Dublin that promoted the scale of this task into mission impossible territory.
Kenny never gave up and that belief was visible in a mature performance from his squad that brought them to the brink.
This was Legia Warsaw’s time, the culmination of a series of near misses and campaigns in the group stages of the Europa League. Poland is a football-mad country of over 38 million people, yet it’s two decades since they sent a team forward into the Champions League proper.
But the stadium was quite subdued at the end. With a deeper playing panel, Dundalk might well have got the job done over the two legs. That’s why it was asking a lot for an Irish side to jump straight to the top floor and skip some of the levels in between.
Once the route for domestic champions remains in place, then it is plausible for an outstanding League of Ireland side to at least knock on the door regularly.
Dundalk will gain serious knowledge from six high-level Europa encounters this side of Christmas, but the danger is that their better players will be recruited and momentum will be lost.
They have to use their money wisely to ensure that their progress graph keeps heading upwards; in a league plagued with problems it will be a serious challenge.
That is task for the owners and volunteer administrators and Irish football hierarchy. Last night, the pressure was on the players.
Excitement was the prevailing mood around the Polish Army Stadium beforehand with 30,000 noisy Poles in party mode. Legia fans unveiled a banner which translated as ‘History is a rolling cycle.’
The ultra were raucous throughout but, by half-time, the general mood in the stands was one of trepidation. That was because Dundalk had come to town with a plan to keep the tie alive.
Kenny was true to his word by selecting an attacking side, with John Mountney and the suspended Stephen O’Donnell replaced by Ronan Finn and Robbie Benson.
The devil was in the detail as he changed into a fluid shape that approached a midfield diamond with Daryl Horgan deployed centrally. Width was sacrificed, with Finn and Benson operating narrow with a view to retaining possession. Chris Shields sat in front of the back four.
They started brightly as Legia tried to get the grips with the changes. Benson did cut off one threatening Legia counter from a poor Dundalk corner, but the ex-UCD student really made his mark at the other end of the pitch with a stunning strike that managed to briefly silence the Legia din.
It came from patient build-up play down the right to force a throw that led to right-full Sean Gannon swinging in a cross that Dave McMillan headed back towards the penalty spot, where Benson arrived at full speed to execute a technically perfect right-footed volley on the run.
It prompted a strong reaction from Legia. Their passing was sloppy, however, with anxiety slipping into their play and straightforward balls overclubbed. Dundalk’s system did leave them open to difficulty down the flanks if Legia got forward to overlap and their best moments invariably started from there.
Their only major goalscoring opportunity before the break came in the form of a speculative exocet from left-full Adam Hlousek, forcing Gary Rogers into an acrobatic save.
The expectation was that Legia would come out and step things up a gear. But that didn’t really happen.
Granted, there were spells where Dundalk were completely pegged back and McMillan isolated.
They weren’t being cut apart, though, with Legia incapable of playing through the exceptional Andy Boyle and Paddy Barrett. Hull-bound Nemanja Nikolic was subdued.
When Dundalk did get into Legia’s final third around the hour mark, Benson nearly doubled his tally with an overhead kick that sailed over.
As the midway point of the half approached, Kenny would have liked the option of the injured Ciaran Kilduff to spring from the bench as fatigue set in.
They were given hope by an unexpected source. Persistent fouling from Legia was a feature of the first meeting but they were punished here when Hlousek – earlier booked for a cynical hack on Barrett – received a second red for needlessly dragging down the lively Finn.
To their credit, Legia rose to the challenge. Nikolic was called ashore, with Michal Kucharczyk – one of their nine internationals – driving on.
Even with their numerical advantage, Kenny’s side were living on the edge.
With 15 minutes to go, they finally emerged to give Legia netminder Arkadiusz Malarz some work to do, with Horgan teeing up Patrick McEleney for a weak right-footer.
Kenny introduced Darren Meenan with eight minutes to go, and the final roll of the dice was local teenager Michael O’Connor for his European debut, a player with a bright future.
Legia have the budget to bring on senior internationals, though, and the gulf in resources is what can decide fine margins.
As Dundalk pushed, Meenan was unable to capitalise on opportunities to get balls in the box.
The signal for the four added minutes was followed by the clincher, a clearance that exposed Dundalk adventure, with Kucharczyk superbly seizing the space to arrow into the area and beat Rogers with a top class finish.
To get this close was an extraordinary achievement and Dundalk were distraught at the death. Moral victories will provide no comfort in the immediate aftermath.
The challenge now is to find the momentum that can deliver real ones in the next phase of their adventure.