Kenny’s heroes go down fighting
Legia Warsaw 1 Dundalk 1 Legia win 3-1 on aggregate
Published 24/08/2016 | 02:30
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 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 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 performance from his squad that brought them to the brink.
"It's an opportunity missed," he sighed afterwards. "We were completely written off coming here 2-0 down but we've lost by the narrowest of margins. Knocking them out would probably have been the biggest shock in European football and we went close. We showed we are a good team."
This was Legia Warsaw's time. 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.
They had an extra man for the final 25 minutes of this encounter, yet this was the period where they ran out of ideas.
Legia had the savvy at the €15m business end.
It was asking a lot for an Irish side to jump straight to the top floor without the near misses and Europa League campaigns that Legia have endured and enjoyed.
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 League 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 for everyone involved.
Reaching the Europa League is quite a feat for a team from outside UEFA's top 40 leagues. Kenny wants his players to strive for progression from the group which falls their way on Friday.
"To get to there is an amazing achievement but we didn't want to fall back on the safety net as the Champions League was our ambition," he said.
From the outset, it was clear they had a winning attitude.
Excitement was the prevailing mood around the Polish Army Stadium beforehand with 30,000 noisy Poles in party mode
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. Finn and Benson operated 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. 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. "Thankfully I got a good connection," he said modestly.
Legia were anxious and sloppy. Dundalk's system did leave them open to difficulty down the flanks if Legia got forward to overlap and their best moments started 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. Legia's persistent fouling was punished when Hlousek received a second yellow 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.
Dundalk had the numerical advantage, but they were running out of steam. A half-chance for Patrick McEleney was the best they could do.
"They have more European experience than us and I think it told," said Benson, echoing the sentiments of his manager.
Late subs Darren Meenan and Michael O'Connor were unable to improve things. The latter, a teenage striker, was given his European debut.
Legia have the budget to bring on senior internationals, though, and the gulf in resources is what can decide fine margins.
"We weren't creative enough," said Kenny, who again brought up the frustration of the harsh penalty awarded to the Poles in the first match.
"They shut the game down with ten men and then hit us on the counter with their pace."
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.