What Dundalk need to do to advance to the knockout stages of the Europa League
Dundalk 0-1 Az Alkmaar
Published 25/11/2016 | 02:30
The expectations that Dundalk have raised made this a bitterly disappointing evening.
Their Europa League fate is now out of their hands after losing a game that leaves a resurgent AZ Alkmaar in control of their destiny.
An equaliser for Stephen Kenny's side would have left them needing just a point from Israel in a fortnight's time to advance to the round of 32.
Instead, they now need Zenit St Petersburg to follow up yesterday's win over Maccabi Tel Aviv by going to Alkmaar and taking at least a point from their final match.
If Zenit take a point or more from their trip to AZ, a victory in the last game of a remarkable year would definitely be enough for the League of Ireland champions.
A score draw could also allow Dundalk to go through but only if Zenit win in Holland. That scenario would result in a three-way tie for second where Kenny's men would prevail on goal difference.
But that depends on Zenit's application and, more significantly, Dundalk regaining the momentum that they appear to have lost by stepping out of season.
This result reflected the run of play. Tallaght was full, but it was flat.
Dundalk started this game like a phone dangerously low on battery, operating well below full capacity.
Fixture congestion was an irritant in their European campaign to date but it looked as though the 18-day rest had knocked them off the pace.
"I don't want to sit here make excuses," said Kenny, "But we looked like a team that hadn't played in a couple of weeks. I can't remember us starting a game so poorly.
"Due to the number of injuries we had at the end of the season, a lot of the players couldn't train properly and there was an element of that in the way we performed."
By contrast, an AZ team needing to win to stay alive started with purpose and capitalised on Dundalk sluggishness. Inside ten minutes, they were ahead with what proved to be the winner.
It was a dreadful goal from a Dundalk perspective with AZ pressure forcing corners and the hosts lacking conviction when it came to clearing them. They were punished when Mats Seuntjens picked up the leftovers from another delivery and sent it into the area where the flight deceived Andy Boyle, surprising Dane Massey, who let the ball bounce off his thigh and into the path of the grateful Wout Weghorst who did the rest.
Dundalk could have few complaints. Gradually, though, they began to charge up and play their way into the match as AZ lost their early intensity.
Kenny had sprung a shock by opting for regular sub Ciaran Kilduff ahead of David McMillan and after a poor start he began to make things happen and bring his team-mates up the park.
Stephen O'Donnell began to get on the ball and, supported by Robbie Benson and Ronan Finn, Dundalk managed to put some passages of play together and force some corners. AZ were content enough to allow them have the ball and set the League of Ireland champions the task of picking them open.
Finn was their most incisive player, but O'Donnell was influential and when his troublesome hamstring packed it in just before the interval, Kenny had to revert to Plan B. Shorn of Chris Shields, who felt unwell and gave up his place on the bench, he relocated Patrick McEleney to the centre and introduced John Mountney on the right.
Dundalk's chance count was low. Kilduff did wiggle into space from two set-pieces but his accuracy failed him. Kenny felt his team's overall standard of crossing was poor.
There was a sense that AZ had invited some of the trouble and they emerged with the intention of pressing further up the park again with coach John van den Brom barking orders.
And they started to get some joy with runners breaking from midfield capitalising on O'Donnell's absence. With Dundalk struggling to play with any fluency, they lived on the edge as red shirts forged the better openings.
Gary Rogers, who has shunned a move to Shamrock Rovers to stay with Dundalk, became the hosts' most important player.
He made a pair of point-blank stops to keep them in the game. First he denied the giant Weghorst from a break that ripped the Dundalk defence apart.
Then, a move starting from AZ's right culminated with Ben Rienstra dropping into the hole, controlling well before the advancing Rogers diverted his effort over the bar.
It kept Dundalk alive but they struggled to penetrate a AZ rearguard marshalled by Ron Vlaar.
Among those watching Daryl Horgan (pictured left, after the match) were Hull manager Mike Phelan and Ipswich boss Mick McCarthy but AZ managed to stifle the Galwegian and a couple of his late dead-ball deliveries were below par. Swede Mattias Johansson won their battle.
With 15 minutes to go, Kenny sent in Dave McMillan and Dean Shiels in search of inspiration but they banged brick walls. Finn was bright again and a lofted chip did leave Sergio Rochet scrambling as the ball trickled wide. However, the AZ goalkeeper was by no means overworked.
"A draw would have flattered us," conceded Kenny. It was the raucous away supporters who were singing at full-time as Dundalk bodies slumped to the ground.
They face a serious challenge to lift themselves for one last shot at glory.