Mountain to climb for Dundalk after late sickener
Dundalk 0 Legia Warsaw 2
Published 18/08/2016 | 02:30
In an Irish sporting week dominated by gripes with officialdom, Dundalk wanted to provide the antidote.
Instead, they were left with their own sense of injustice as the awarding of a soft penalty derailed their big Champions League night.
"I'm angry," said Stephen Kenny as the opening line of his press conference. He wanted this experience to be about different emotions.
Ultimately, it was a self-inflicted blow in the seconds before the final whistle that leaves them in need of a miracle in Poland next Tuesday.
Heading for a narrow defeat courtesy of the contentious 56th minute spot kick from Nemanja Nikolic, Dundalk kept finding cul-de-sacs in their search for a leveller and Patrick McEleney was caught in possession.
Legia, who looked extremely happy with a 1-0 triumph, pounced to fashion the opportunity for sub Aleksandar Prijovic to clip over Gary Rogers and prompt wild celebrations in the away end.
Warsaw fans believe their 21-year wait for the group stages is over.
Kenny struggled to put a positive spin on his team's prospects as he vented at the officials.
"We've a mountain to climb," he said. "That second goal is difficult to stomach. There's no way we deserved to lose that game 2-0."
He was right, although the hard luck story is weakened by the fact that the League of Ireland champions did not exactly miss a host of chances.
Legia's sturdy defence was comfortable at the business end of this tense affair, save for the loss of concentration that allowed Ciaran Kilduff to blast over just before the end of regulation time.
Still, this eagerly anticipated fixture had the personality of a typical first-leg scoreless draw so Dundalk were sick at the outcome.
From an identical scenario two years ago, they won 2-1 away in Hadjuk Split and had opportunities to complete a stunning turnaround. But that was in the early rounds of the Europa League with much lower stakes.
This means everything to Legia. Their coach Besnik Hasi felt that his troops deserved their victory.
It didn't always look likely on a night that was slow to warm up, especially with large delays outside leading to the unusual situation where a good portion of the 30,417 crowd arrived long after the opening whistle.
Fortunately for the latecomers, they didn't miss much. What they came into was a cagey affair with both sides scoping each other out.
It was scoreless at the interval and while Legia did get on top midway through the half, they only threatened seriously on one occasion with Polish winger Michal Kucharczyk flashing a right-footer wide.
In possession terms, it was 53pc Legia and 47pc Dundalk.
The hosts defended intelligently with centre-halves Andy Boyle and Paddy Barrett calm under pressure.
Stephen O'Donnell was composed ahead of them, save for a rash tackle that earned him a caution which rules him out of the second leg - his absence adds another layer of difficulty.
Further up the park, McEleney linked well with Daryl Horgan as Dundalk looked for individual moments of skill to pick open a savvy Legia rearguard.
They combined to force a last-ditch Legia tackle just before the interval. McEleney had earlier given Arkadiusz Malarz some cause for concern with a header and a speculative shot, yet it was an attempted Horgan cross that actually forced the backtracking Legia netminder to tip over the bar.
Michal Pazdan, a key member of the Polish senior squad and one of nine full internationals in the Legia XI, stuck tight to Dave McMillan throughout.
Persistent fouling from the green shirts antagonised the natives and eventually yielded a yellow for Vadis Odjidja.
But the frustration towards the match officials increased 10-fold after the restart when the game turned on the contentious spot-kick decision.
The underdogs had started the half reasonably well, but they switched off as Nikolic was slipped into space before the advancing Rogers drove him wide, leading to a square pass for Steeven Langil whose shot struck the arm of Boyle.
With his back turned to attempt a block, there was no intent from the defender. But the German ref Deniz Aytekin pointed to the spot.
"It was an appalling decision that swung the game," said Kenny, pointing to a seminar earlier this year where his players were told that such incidents do not represent a 'legitimate handball'.
Nikolic, a member of Hungary's French adventure in the summer, clinically dispatched with Rogers sent the wrong way.
It was a serious punch to the gut for Dundalk and they struggled to recover as Legia sensed the opportunity to add another precious away goal.
"It took us 15 minutes to recover," admitted Kenny. "That was a psychological blow."
He sent in Ronan Finn for Mountney on the right although he operated narrow with full back Sean Gannon (pictured) pushed forward as a target for diagonal balls.
Dundalk did have spells where they passed the ball well but they were shifting it from side to side without really penetrating.
However, despite their position of control, Legia were uninspiring and they began to drop back as Kenny sprung Robbie Benson and Kilduff.
A period of pressure culminated with the latter firing over. At that stage, it was still very much game on. The Prijovic sucker punch killed the lingering optimism.