Saturday 23 March 2019

Don't for a second write off Dundalk in Cyprus

Soccer Europa League: Dundalk 0 AEK Larnaca 0

James Rogers at Oriel Park

Stephen Kenny was adamant afterwards that he wouldn't have taken 0-0 beforehand, but Thursday night's result means Dundalk still have every chance of progressing to the third qualifying round of the Europa League.

The first leg tie with AEK Larnaca wasn't a classic. Austrian whistler Harald Lechner saw to that. Yet while there's a definite feeling that there is a better performance in the tank from this Dundalk side, this was a game they could well have won.

In a game where chances were at a premium, the best arguably fell the home side's way after just nine minutes when Michael Duffy burst clear after good hold-up play by Pat Hoban to hold off Joan Truyols, only to see his curling shot skin the outside of the post.

By contrast Andoni Iraola's side didn't have too many clear-cut chances. The pick of them came two minutes into the second half when Apostolos Giannou should have done better after a free kick was nodded down to him at the edge of the six-yard box by Ivan Trickovski. Their two best chances other than that, from Trickovski on seven minutes and Acorán late in the game, were sliced wide but were both offside anyway.

Perhaps the only other real time that the visitors had their opponents really worried was on 23 minutes when Giannou pulled the ball back to Joan Tomás in the box. His initial shot was blocked by a superb challenge from Sean Hoare before he blazed the follow-up over.

Otherwise it was Dundalk who looked the more likely, with Duffy testing the shaky Tono Ramírez on a couple of occasions and Hoban firing over late in the game from an acute angle. The former Real Sociedad goalkeeper isn't a man who would fill you with confidence and got away with two potentially huge blunders in either half - firstly letting the ball slip under his foot from Truyols' pass only to just about scramble clear, before scuffing a clearance directly to Dylan Connolly on 58 minutes which the winger failed to punish due to a cynical challenge from Hector Hevel, who cleverly took a booking to get his keeper out of jail.

You'd expect the Cypriots to be better at home, of course. They have a number of players who could potentially return to the side, while they will be better equipped in dealing with the searing heat and humidity which is expected at the AEK Arena.

Nevertheless, Dundalk will be positive of keeping up their record of scoring at every European venue they have played at under Kenny. If they can manage a goal out there, then the pressure is on AEK Larnaca. A score draw is enough and you wouldn't back against this side scoring.

The pace of Duffy and Connolly caused them problems throughout and those two could be a real asset on the break away from home.

Dundalk need to be better in midfield, though. While the performances of Chris Shields in recent weeks have been rightly lauded, Robbie Benson needs to give more than energy alongside him.

Equally the Lilywhites need to find a way of getting Jamie McGrath more involved. His presence as an attacking threat was almost nil on Thursday, but the 21-year-old did prove crucial from a defensive point of view, making three big tackles at the edge of his own box at crucial times.

Dundalk struggled at times to get their passing game going, resulting in arguably more long balls than they would have liked. This also left Hoban isolated at times as he battled to live off scraps for extended periods.

Shields did well in coping with the obvious threat of Trickovski for the most part, but just off him Jorge Larena and Hector Hevel's influence will need to be checked a bit better for the return leg.

Hoare once again proved a more than capable deputy for Sean Gannon at right back, but you'd like to see more attacking threat from the full backs in the second leg, even if they will perhaps have to be more defensively disciplined playing away from home.

Admittedly, Dane Massey's cause wasn't helped by a harsh fourth-minute booking for the apparent use of an elbow in winning a header with Acorán. The 35-year-old Spaniard would return the favour by leaving an elbow of his own on the Dundalk left back minutes later, but this challenge bizarrely went unpunished.

It was one of a number of incidents that Dundalk fans took exception to, as they began to vigorously boo referee Lechner just a few minutes in.

Frustration turned into rage in the 10th minute when Connolly was pulled down as he looked to burst through on goal, but this went unpunished.

It was all downhill from the official from there. In what wasn't a particularly dirty game Dundalk finished up with four yellows, while their opponents got just two despite being the more physical side throughout.

Lechner's performance was summed up in the 74th minute when he showed a second yellow card and subsequently a red to Hoban after the striker had complained that he had been spat at by a Larnaca defender following a coming together with goalkeeper Ramírez.

Home fans were undoubtedly biased, but all agreed they had rarely seen a poorer refereeing display. It left the Lilywhites players frustrated, but they did well to maintain their discipline when it would have been easy to have seen red, both literally and figuratively.

There were a series of baffling decisions throughout as the referee lost all control on things all by himself.

One of the major pluses to take from the game was the return of Patrick McEleney, who came on with 23 minutes remaining to make his first appearance since his re-signing from Oldham Athletic at the start of the month.

The Derry man might be a bit of the pace yet, but his trickery and skill caused the Cypriots more than a couple of problems. Almost immediately he teed Benson up for a shot which the midfielder failed to find the target with, while two minutes from time he also set Hoban up for a chance that he would normally do better with.

It's unlikely McEleney will start the return leg, but what an asset he could be off the bench. He gives that something a little bit different, while his performance against Rosenborg last year shows he thrives on these occasions.

So too do Dundalk.

There will be a section of pundits who feel it's advantage Larnaca - and maybe it is - but don't for a second write this Dundalk side off.

They've never feared going away and having to score and they won't again on Thursday.

An away goal would give them a very real chance of progression. They're more than capable of getting it.

Dundalk: Rogers; Hoare, Gartland, Cleary, Massey (Jarvis 80); Shields, Benson; Connolly (Murray 84), McGrath (McEleney 67), Duffy; Hoban. Subs not used: Sava, Mountney, Chevedukas, Kelly.

AEK Larnaca: Ramirez; Siliva, Truyols, González; Acorán, Larena (Nacho Cases 83), Tomás (Tete 62), Hevel, Ioannou; Trickovski, Giannou (Roushias 90). Subs not used: Christodoulou, Anastasiou, Mamas, Konstantinou.

Referee: H Lechner (Austria).

The Argus