Euro spot now priority as gap widens
SSE Airtricity premier division: Shamrock Rovers 2 Dundalk 1
'Cheerio, four in-a-row' sang the jubilant Shamrock Rovers supporters at Tallaght Stadium on Friday night.
Dundalk fans would rarely agree with their Hoops counterparts but not even the most optimistic of Lilywhites supporter could expect their side to realistically retain the title from here.
Going into the first match of the second series of games, a 12 point deficit would have been difficult to make up. Now at 15 points it is looking nigh on impossible.
Not only would it require Cork City to lose at least a quarter of their remaining matches but it would also necessitate the champions to go on a flawless winning run.
Neither looks particularly likely on the evidence of the first 12 games and, perhaps most worryingly from a Dundalk perspective, it is their end of the deal that they look most unlikely to come up with.
Stephen Kenny's side took to the field in Tallaght like a team shorn of confidence. Their motivation and tactical awareness was lacking and they were second best in every area against a Rovers side who, quite simply, wanted it more.
Stephen Bradley's side haven't been short of problems themselves so far this season but their high pressing game had Dundalk at sixes and sevens from the outset as they won just about every personal battle on the night.
Their two goal lead at the break, courtesy of goals from Ronan Finn and Dave McAllister, didn't flatter them and - if anything - they probably could have been further ahead.
A stoppage time header from Niclas Vemmelund did put a bit of a brighter look on the scoreline but it couldn't paper over the fact that this was a game Dundalk deservedly to lose.
Their fifth defeat of the campaign to date is now just one shy of the total amount of games they lost in the whole of last season and while each has hurt in its own way, this was by far the most disappointing.
Every team will have an off night but following on from the defeat to Galway Utd the previous week, there was worringly no reaction to it like we have become accustomed to seeing from Kenny's sides during his tenure.
Both goals conceded were poor from a defensive point of view. There's no such thing as a good goal to concede but both of Rovers' strikes were totally preventable.
With Brian Gartland left on the bench due to a back problem, Paddy Barrett and Sean Hoare started at in the heart of the defence for only the second time. It's a few years at least since Dundalk played a league game without either Gartland or Andy Boyle in the heart of the defence and this led to huge indecision throughout the game, particularly early on.
This was evident as early as the sixth minute when Hoare failed to deal with Tomer Chencinski's kick-out before Barrett's short back pass was seized upon by Trevor Clarke, who had to be denied at close range by Gary Rogers.
Hoare, in particular, looked all at sea and after diving in and missing a 50/50 challenge with Finn, that invited pressure, his loose header clear on 11 minutes was almost punished with the opening goal. It was met sweetly on the volley by McAllister, whose effort rippled the side-netting - an effort that just about everyone in the main stand thought had gone in momentarily.
The opening goal would arrive soon after on 17 minutes though and again Hoare played his part in it coming about. The former Pat's defender was under no pressure on the halfway line when he played a pass straight to Finn and then wasn't convincing in dealing with the ball over the top towards Gary Shaw. Having cleared for a throw, Dundalk then switched off on the left side of their defence with Simon Madden taking advantage of this lapse in concentration to pick out Finn, who steered a superb shot with the outside of his right boot to the left hand corner of the net.
The defensive problems continued after that with Shaw allowed to cross from the right to Graham Burke, whose free header would have caused more problems had it not come off Barrett en route to goal.
Dundalk's cause wasn't helped by losing Stephen O'Donnell to a head injury just after the half hour mark but it was by no means the beating of them.
The defensive problems continued after his departure with Conor Clifford guilty of giving the ball away to Shaw in the 35th minute. The striker tore away up the left past Vemmelund to cross into the box. The ball was missed by Hoare to be collected by Burke, who looked destined to double the lead only to be denied by a superb last ditch challenge from Dane Massey.
Within two minutes the second goal did arrive, largely down to some woeful marking by the Dundalk defence. Burke's corner on the right was floated to the back post to McAllister, who was free to head home from six yards out totally unmarked.
While holes could undoubtedly be picked in Dundalk's defensive performance, going forward there was little threat either. Not for the first time this season, things never got going in midfield, the supply of crosses from set pieces and open play was found wanting and too many long balls were attempted as a means to break down the Rovers defence.
Michael Duffy did have two first half attempts, both of which brought saves from Chencinski but neither of which were particularly troubling. Clifford arguably went closest in the 28th minute when his dipping shot from long range rippled the top of the net.
There was one further chance two minutes before half-time when Hoare's punt forward was laid off by David McMillan into the path of the inrushing Massey but his effort was straight at the 'keeper.
It then summed up Dundalk's lack of potency going forward that, for a side chasing the game, they managed just one shot on target in the second half outside of Vemmelund's late goal.
That came on 79 minutes when an angled ball forward by Barrett was headed tamely towards Chencinski by substitute Ciaran Kilduff.
A minute earlier McMillan had headed wide from a deep cross from John Mountney but it was by no means the siege that you'd have expected from the champions when they found themselves two behind at the break.
Not even a formation change, which seen Dundalk go to three at the back for the second half, could breathe life into the side and, if anything, they were fortunate not to find themselves further behind as Rovers enjoyed the better openings.
McAllister had to be denied four minutes after the restart before Rogers kept Dundalk in the game on 52 minutes with a fine save to his right to keep out Shaw's bicycle kick attempt.
Rovers sat back as the half wore on but were relatively comfortable in doing so. The one time they were really stretched on 55 minutes, Mountney's cross from the right evaded everyone.
There were a couple of penalty appeals which, if luck is on your side, you'd probably have got. The first shout came in the follow up to the aforementioned Mountney cross, which was collected on the far side by Massey. His return delivery into the box appeared to come off the arm of Roberto Lopes under little pressure but nothing was given.
Then on 77 minutes an angled pass by Barrett towards McMillan saw him go down in the box under a challenge from Madden. Despite Kenny's appeals, referee Rob Rogers was again not interested. In truth, it probably would have warranted a free anywhere else on the field but it summed up Dundalk on the night that their appeals were largely half-hearted at best.
There was at least a goal for the visitors at the end. Darren Meenan was shown a second yellow card in the fourth minute of stoppage time for a dive in an attempt to get Hoare sent off. The resulting free from Patrick McEleney was then met by the head of Vemmelund, who looped a header over Chencinski to briefly give Rovers a scare.
It was far too little, far too late though.
In truth, Rovers couldn't have been more comfortable in claiming a first league win over Dundalk in 12 attempts, dating back almost exactly four years to May 6th 2013.
Back in October 2015 Tallaght was the ground where Dundalk won their second league title under Kenny. Fast forward 19 months and it appears the Dublin 24 venue is where their hopes of a fourth were all but ended.
There has been a lot of change from last season and that was always going to require adjustment. Perhaps some players are using it as an excuse now though.
They need to stand up and be counted. The title looks unlikely but on current performances Europe could be at risk too. Dundalk could be fourth by the time they play again.
It's no disgrace not being able to keep with a Cork City side that have now won 12 from 12 but Dundalk should be better than this. The basics of desire and motivation are missing at present and they need to be restored soon because this was, quite simply, nowhere near good enough.