Agony for gutsy Dundalk – but hopes still alive
Zenit St P'burg 2 Dundalk 1
Published 04/11/2016 | 02:30
They are sick of moral victories and pats on the back that come with brave defeats.
But for Dundalk, what's important now - and what will last longer than the praise they'll get for a gutsy display in conditions which tested physical and mental resolve - is that progress to the knock-out phase of the Europa League is still a more realistic aim for Stephen Kenny's side than it is for Manchester United.
Top spot in the group has been won, and deservedly so, by a star-studded, expensively-assembled and ambitious Zenit outfit, the first side in the competition to reach the last 32.
But as happened in the first of their encounters with Dundalk, in Dublin, Zenit had to work hard for the win - by a one-goal margin.
Dundalk have, again, gone toe to toe with a far superior side but came out on the other end without too many bruises beyond their defeats.
Zenit, with nine senior internationals in the starting XI, were the better side last night but it still pained the visitors that Zenit's lead goal was a gift, with Brazilian international Giuliano scoring the first of his brace when defender Brian Gartland lost possession carelessly three minutes before half-time.
Dundalk's response, which got them level through a Daryl Horgan goal seven minutes after the break, was just another one of those impressive chapters in this story of 2016.
Giuliano popped up again with 12 minutes left to play, stabbing home the winner from close range, though Dundalk almost grabbed a draw as a late effort from Patrick McEleney struck the crossbar.
They are hardy men, these Dundalk players: on a bitterly cold and snowy night when all of the Zenit players wore gloves, the away side's central defensive pairing of Gartland and new Ireland call-up Andy Boyle wore short sleeves.
It took a defensive error and a scrappy goal to give Zenit their win and for Dundalk, with two games to play in the group, it's all to play for in terms of second place.
Given the task ahead of them on the night, the main objective would have been to get to half-time without conceding a goal, something they managed in the home game against Zenit.
But once this game settled down after the first 10 minutes, which was spent by Zenit sizing up Dundalk and the visitors getting used to their chilly surroundings, it was clear that Kenny's side were in for an exceptionally hard game.
Zenit owned the ball for the best part of 30 minutes, trying time and again to break down the Louth side, who stayed in the game with a succession of blocks and tackles, keeper Gary Rogers also earning his corn with a top-class save.
It was just such a pity that Zenit's chance did not come from their own brilliance but a very basic error.
Russian international Alexander Kerzhakov dispossessed Gartland and fed the ball into Giuliano, the Brazil cap beating Rogers, just three minutes before the break.
Dundalk can look back with distress at the way the goal was conceded but it was coming, Zenit clearly on top.
It was almost one-way traffic though Dundalk did have some moments. A cross from John Mountney on 13 minutes seemed to take a little bit of extra flight from the night-time air and struck the crossbar, keeper Mikhail Kerzhakov relieved to see the ball bounce away.
Midway through the half Horgan and McEleney had speculative shots.
But it was a night for defending for the visitors.
On 33 minutes Zenit upped it again, Dane Massey getting his body in the way to keep out a Oleg Shatov attempt; Rogers was then needed to deny Giuliano on 36 minutes.
With some more bite in the Dundalk side with the arrival off the bench of Stephen O'Donnell, they shocked the home side into silence when Horgan equalised seven minutes into the second half, the Galway man showing vision, skill and patience to collect the ball on the half-way line from a wayward back-header, sprint forward and beat the keeper.
Zenit expected a win, though, to make sure that their progress was sealed with two games to spare and, after a spell of more dominance, they were in front again, Giuliano with another goal, a scrapy finish from close range after Dundalk were unable to clear a corner on 78 minutes.
Dundalk, who had four players booked, had some fight left in them and Horgan's superb long-range pass fell for McEleney, who tried his luck with a shot and luck was on the side of the Zenit keeper as the Derry man's shot came off the woodwork.
So it was party time for the home fans, their side into the last 32 and with a clear mission to win the Europa League, but for Dundalk there's more than a bit of hope that, with errors erased from their game and more of the finishing which Horgan showed here last night, Kenny's crew could yet make it out of the group as runners-up to Zenit.