Buoyant Cork aim to land telling blow
Published 11/10/2016 | 02:30
It is somewhat fitting in this season of congestion that the most significant game of the League of Ireland season takes place on a Tuesday night with the title rivals given barely any time to properly prepare.
For Dundalk and Cork, this Oriel Park showdown is the second of four league matches in nine days that will go some way towards deciding the destination of the title. Intriguingly, it is the locals that find themselves under pressure.
Saturday's shocking 3-0 defeat at home to Sligo Rovers means they hold just a one-point advantage over Cork who, remarkably, now have a superior goal difference following a prolific run that was highlighted by the five-goal thrashing of Galway.
John Caulfied was able to withdraw key men Greg Bolger, Kenny Browne and Stephen Dooley as Leesiders cruised through the second half. Already, the focus was on tonight. Every minute of rest counts.
Much has been made of Dundalk's hectic schedule brought about by their European exploits but, in truth, the worst is yet to come. A cup replay in Derry last Tuesday was unwelcome but, otherwise, their recent schedule has been comparable with Cork's.
The real problem for the Lilywhites is that they don't have any kind of rest period between now and the end of the season because of their Europa League date with Zenit St Petersburg on October 20. They face three matches in the final six days of the campaign and their ideal scenario involved having a cushion entering that phase.
Instead, they risk playing catch-up because of the momentum that Cork have built up. Dundalk might be a point clear, but there is a sense that a draw would leave them extremely vulnerable.
This is Cork's best chance to seize control of their own destiny, but Dundalk's need for the three points is just as great.
Putting every title debate in the context of the Louth club's busy schedule really does do a disservice to what Caulfield's team has achieved in 2016.
On paper, they have the title winning form. They've lost just two matches compared to Dundalk's five and have conceded just three goals on their travels across the entire campaign.
Cork have also collected six points from their two previous league meetings with their title rivals this year; the head-to-head killed them in 2014 when all three encounters went the way of the Lilywhites including the last-day decider.
Dundalk haven't scored against Caufield's side since the Aviva Stadium goal last November which completed the domestic double and gave Cork motivation to come back stronger after two seasons of frustration in the silver medal position. They have improved significantly with Browne, Bolger, Dooley and top scorer Sean Maguire - who didn't even make the Dundalk bench in that final - adding quality in all areas of the park.
Cork are a slicker operation now, capable of breaking quickly and cutting sides open. Over the past month, they have really clicked.
Ironically, they are now at the stage where, similar to Dundalk, their style isn't suited by the horrific Oriel Park surface that functions as the important asterisk in any attempts to build this match up. It does have a tendency to neutralise positive attacking traits.
Dundalk's response to their worst home loss of the Kenny era will be fascinating. After admitting that the Sligo outcome was a 'shocker', striker Dave McMillan looked on the bright side.
"The games are coming so fast that we have a quick chance to redeem ourselves," he asserted. "We can't feel sorry for ourselves. There's no point in that."
"We know that people have been praising us for our good performances so if we have to take some stick after this that's fair enough. We've got to be men about it and the best way to answer the critics is to go and win the game.
"This team is made of good characters and I think we have shown that in the past."
Skipper Stephen O'Donnell spoke along similar lines. "We've been there and we've done it," he stressed. "It's up to us now to raise it. We were in a similar position a couple of years ago. We lost out on top spot going into the last game of the season against Cork and we won it. It's a huge game. There'll be no need to get motivated for it."
Cork will be pumped up; that's a given with the energy their manager brings to huge matches. And they are driven by the determination to gain respect. After their own struggles against Sligo, Cork fans revelled in Dundalk's weekend nightmare.
A tweet from Cork's official account cheekily asked if anybody had a score update but it was quickly deleted.
It's all part of the fun and with an FAI Cup final pencilled in for November 6, this burgeoning rivalry has a spark. Both teams have a double in their sights.
"Obviously, we're coming up against the greatest team that's ever played in the League of Ireland - so we're told - but we're still in there," said Caulfield, offering an insight into their dressing room's mindset.
"Dundalk have got all the plaudits and they deserve it with their European run but our run of form, our results, our goalscoring and our clean sheets have been exceptionally good as well."
Cork feel they are worth a bit of hype too. An epic evening lies in store.
Dundalk v Cork City, Live RTE2, 7.05