Monday 16 September 2019

Euro adventure far from over after Ajerbaijan result

Qarabag 3, Dundalk 0 (Qarabag won 4-1 on agg)

James Rogers at the Dalga Arena

Progression is a road often littered with hurdles and setbacks but Dundalk can hold their heads high despite their exit from the Champions League qualifiers in the Dalga Arena last week.

There are lessons to be learned on this journey and while you wouldn't be human not to be disappointed at a loss, it is no disgrace to bow out to a Qarabag side who are arguably the best side the Lilywhites have faced on the continent in recent years.

In order to beat a side like Gurban Gurbanov's, you almost need the perfect storm to happen. The small band of 14 supporters who made the 5,200km journey last week dreamed of such an upset but in Baku, the City of Winds, their dreams were blown apart.

Having conceded early to Jaime Romero after just 12 minutes, similar to the first leg this game was about hanging on for Dundalk for a large period. They did that admirably in the hope that a big chance would emerge to score the crucial away goal they always needed heading to Azerbaijan anyway. It almost came too when Patrick Hoban forced a save from Vagner midway through the second half that had the home support quite worried.

Unfortunately, Dundalk couldn't get at their hosts enough to truly trouble them though and when they attempted to open up they were undone by basic errors.

Having weathered the early storm, Dundalk were the victims of their own downfall in the end as a poor clearance from Michael Duffy on 76 minutes was punished to kill off any hopes of a sucker punch.

It's fine margins at this level and while a similar poor clearance from the same player against Derry City was punished in Oriel Park early this year, you more often than not don't get away with it at this level.

It wasn't necessarily in Baku where this tie got away from Dundalk. Those series of missed chances after Hoban's equaliser a week earlier in Oriel Park were key.

While people look back with rose tinted glasses at the memorable 3-0 win at home to BATE Borisov in Tallaght in 2016, a crucial part of that victory was actually only losing 1-0 away in the first leg.

While no one doubts the better side advanced on this occasion, in many ways the 3-0 result flattered Qarabag somewhat as it was never really as comfortable for them as that scoreline would suggest.

Still, Dundalk's European journey is far from over and they now head for Bratislava this week knowing that no matter what the Slovakians throw at them it is unlikely to be of the same quality as they largely managed to cope with for 166 minutes of the 180 in this tie.

The home side started like a whirlwind with first leg goalscorer Mahir Emreli almost breaking the deadlock after just 21 seconds but his effort was pushed around the post by Gary Rogers.

The pressure continued with Rahil Mammadov flashing a header over from the resulting corner.

There was brief respite for Dundalk when they got three corners in succession, the third of which saw Sean Hoare get a free header in that was unfortunately straight at Vagner on six minutes. That and a long range effort from Patrick McEleney that sailed well over was as good as it got from an attacking sense for Dundalk in the half.

After Michel headed off the bar from Ozobic's corner on seven minutes, the breakthrough finally arrived five minutes later. A poor kick-out from Vagner was taken down by Ailton all too easily on half way with his pass picking out Filip Ozobic. The Croat then released Abdellah Zoubir with a neat back heel. He switched play to the right to Romero who skipped inside Dane Massey's challenge onto his left foot before drilling low to the bottom right hand corner.

Just as in the first leg Qarabag threatened to kill the game off by turning the screw after that but a shot into the side-netting by Zoubir and an effort pulled wide from Ozobic meant that the Lilywhites had weathered much of the storm to trail by just a goal at the break.

The pressure continued into the second half with an early Dani Quintana shot deflecting just wide before the visitors had a major let-off on 54 minutes when Rogers saved from Emreli before Daniel Cleary somehow got back to deny Zoubir scoring from the follow up.

Dundalk had a rare opportunity to score an equaliser on 67 minutes. Sean Gannon found space down the right with Hoban flicking his cross goalwards only for Vagner to get across to save.

Just as they started to push up the pitch, the killer second goal arrived on 76 minutes. Duffy's clearance was poor allowing Maksim Medvedev the time and space to cross for the unmarked Ailton to steer a header home.

The nail was then firmly put in Dundalk's Champions League coffin three minutes from the end when Zoubir pulled back for Romero to fire in his second.

The Argus