Dundalk feeling heat on return to second home
It's safe to say that Tallaght has been a happy hunting ground for Dundalk in recent seasons.
Stephen Kenny's side revelled in sealing a league title at the home of Shamrock Rovers in 2015, and last year used it as a temporary base for European nights that will live long in their memory. Landmark wins over BATE Borisov and Maccabi Tel Aviv were achieved in Rovers' back yard.
They also took six points from a pair of league visits last term, including an emphatic October success that emphasised the gulf between the two clubs at that juncture.
In the Kenny era, Dundalk have generally pitched up in Tallaght on the crest of a wave, but the atmosphere is different heading into tonight's encounter in Dublin 24.
Dundalk are under pressure, with four league defeats from 11 games leaving them 12 points behind runaway leaders Cork City.
They arrive at the home of a Rovers operation that is still finding its feet. Stephen Bradley was in caretaker charge for the final drubbing at the hands of Dundalk last term and spoke before the campaign about the need to get closer to Kenny's standard bearers.
On the opening day of the season, Rovers suffered a narrow defeat in Oriel Park that gave them cause for encouragement. But Cork have left both sides in the shade.
Bradley might have accepted being eight behind Dundalk after one series of games but he didn't anticipate that the Leesiders would be a dozen further points down the road.
There was always going to be a lot riding on this particular fixture, but the price of dropping points now will be more severe than either manager might have anticipated at the beginning of this year. Players are conscious of it too.
"With us dropping points and Rovers dropping points, both teams have been quite inconsistent and aren't where they want to be so it's a big game for both sides," said Dundalk's joint longest-serving player Chris Shields.
"We always seem to pull out a good performance in Tallaght. We're comfortable on the pitch there. It's a good surface, it's a spacious pitch which suits us.
"It's going to be lively, with tackles going in, 15 minutes of helter-skelter and then it's a matter of who takes control of the game."
And Dundalk have generally prevailed in that battle.
But last Friday's reverse in Galway is another example of a match that they let slip from a position of strength; evidence of a vulnerability that has offered opponents encouragement. The injury-time concession was in keeping with the story of their year.
"We're failing to get a bit of momentum and get on a roll," added Shields (pictured). "We're probably not getting the rub of the green either. It's not an excuse but the winner in Galway was a big deflection. That was tough to take.
"We have to concentrate on getting as many points as we can before the break. Any other year we might be six or seven points behind with our results but Cork have had a monumental start.
"At this stage, we're not coming in and looking at their results and worrying about it; it's still a long season and we have to play them twice again. It's about concentrating on ourselves and getting a balance right.
"We have new players and seem to be getting hit with injuries here and there. I don't think we've had a settled team; we might only have started with the same team in the league twice, which can be disruptive."
Losing players was a problem, too. Ronan Finn's exit for Rovers was a shock and a statement from the Hoops, but he is yet to recapture the form that made him such a prized asset.
Darren Meenan and young attacker Michael O'Connor made the move too, although they were no longer in Kenny's plans.
O'Connor is a precocious talent but question marks hang over his discipline; Kenny had reservations on that score and a daft sending-off in Bray a fortnight ago illustrated that Bradley faces a challenge to get the best from a player with undoubted ability, and he might well sit it out against his former club.
"It's almost like a training match from last year," smiled Shields, with a nod to the familiarity of the opposition personnel. But there will be nothing cordial about this affair; not when it's a game that neither party can afford to lose.