'There were a lot of injuries and fellas on benches all over the place' - Dundalk patching up walking wounded for Zenit test
Published 20/10/2016 | 02:30
When Stephen Kenny looked around the Dundalk dressing-room after Monday's win in Longford, he had a bad feeling about tonight's Europa League date with Zenit St Petersburg.
"There were a lot of injuries and fellas on benches all over the place," he sighed. "And you're looking at it thinking 'Jesus, we're playing Zenit in two days. We're in trouble'."
It dampened the euphoria that came with going seven points clear at the top of the Premier Division but, in this specific instance, time really can be a healer, even if it's not as much time as Kenny would like.
"Our preparation couldn't be any worse in terms of doing nothing on the training ground. Nothing," admitted the Dundalk boss ahead of a light session at the match venue in Tallaght, "But as you get closer, your optimistic nature overrides that."
Still, this Dundalk group will have to cope with the aches and pains that have upped the gradient of a stiff task.
Skipper Stephen O'Donnell misses out and the doubtful Chris Shields sat out proceedings with a view to conserving his energy for a fifth outing in the space of just 12 days. John Mountney, Dave McMillan and Ronan Finn all have issues too.
But Kenny has faith in his physios Fearghal Kerin and Sam Rice and believes that his players are capable of drawing energy from a full house and the challenge of taking on arguably the strongest side they have encountered on their European adventure.
"The bigger games do give you an added impetus," said centre-half Andy Boyle, who admits that it's easier to cope with the workload in his position than it is for the midfield runners.
"It takes its toll but just looking at the team we are playing will give us energy. It's something to look forward to rather than fear."
That summed up the tone of the messages from the Dundalk camp, with Kenny smiling as he detailed that tactical discussions with the group at a Tuesday night video session revolved around avoiding falling into a 'low block' - a phrase that has come into fashion.
"A lot of the teams are playing that at the moment but we're not," he said, "It's basically the back four with the two wide players doubling up as full backs and the three in front of that. A 6-3-1. Teams force you to play that way."
He was referring to Zenit's established strategy of operating with three narrow forwards and two full-backs bombing on for width. Essentially, the team under pressure has no option but to fall back into that shape. Dundalk's mission will be to dodge that fate.
"We want to play our natural way," said Kenny, "Our success has been based on greater ambition than that, and we have to keep that ambition or we'll lose. If you play that way there's an inevitability about that. It becomes a matter of time."
Kenny's squad are fully briefed on Zenit's quality: a squad packed with internationals, with Boyle acknowledging that the Irish champions' strength on the counter will have to be utilised.
They were already familiar with the leading lights, specifically Axel Witsel, who scored for Belgium against Ireland in the Euros and was unable to complete a £25m move to Juventus before the close of the transfer window.
He provides a midfield base next to ex-Man City man Javi Garcia in a team which has an extremely attacking mindset. They are unbeaten in all competitions this term and have scored 29 goals in their last eight matches.
The main glimmer of hope is provided by the fact they shipped three away to Maccabi Tel Aviv in their Europa League opener - even though they came to score four and win the game.
"They conceded two headed goals with runners from midfield," said Boyle. "That's interesting."
Zenit arrived in Ireland on Tuesday and did a small tour of Dublin yesterday, and the opening gambit from a visiting hack at the press conference was about Guinness.
They did exude confidence in a slightly confused event where a translated answer from player Artyom Dzyuba talked of Dundalk's long passes and comments from Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu discussed short passes.
Both referred to a 'British style' and Dundalk will be hoping they are underestimated. Lucescu did compliment their previous European displays, but was firm on the bottom line for a club with a €165m budget.
"They deserve to be here," he said, "But I expect to win, it's normal."
Zenit are in a strong position after crushing AZ Alkmaar 5-0, with the Dutchmen taking the brave but ultimately crazy decision to start with two up front. Kenny will not be doing that.
It is likely that his team's qualification prospects will be determined by matches with AZ and Maccabi, yet it's not in his make-up to simply write a game off, and he confirmed that nobody will be rested with Bohemians on Sunday in mind.
That said, he is reluctant to take any gambles that may lead to early substitutions. He knows every player is desperate to be involved because these could be the best days of their lives.
He has received text messages from Derry players involved in their European run under his watch ten years ago which essentially made that point.
"You don't know how things will go in your life so I do think that this is a period that the players should really embrace," he asserted.
"It doesn't mean it's all or nothing. We still have to go in the next few years and build. But while we're here, you have to be the best you can be. This is a great event in people's lives. We have to relish this and enjoy it."