Wednesday 19 December 2018

First of four Cork clashes could be the most critical

Kevin Mulligan

The enforced weather break in the Premier League will be viewed by Dundalk manager, Stephen Kenny as something of a mixed blessing.

On one hand it will give his injured players and those newcomers striving for match fitness additional treatment and training to make themselves available for selection, but on the other hand the postponement of Friday night's game against Derry City has denied the team the chance to build on their excellent performance against Limerick before Friday night's crucial game against Cork City. 

All four games against Cork this season will clearly be decisive in determining the destination of the title, and Friday night's game, because of the four point lead that Cork have already established, could be the most vital.

A win for Cork and they will have stretched the gap between themselves and Dundalk to seven points, while conversely a Dundalk win will considerably boost their prospects of regaining the title.

Because of the importance of the fixture - even at this early stage of the season  - Dundalk would have preferred to have played in Derry last Friday to allow them another opportunity to bed in the defensive and attacking combinations first unveiled against Shamrock Rovers the previous week and then unleashed on a unsuspecting Limerick team in that 8-0 facile win on Tuesday night last. 

The goal tally, and the quality of the finishing, will have done Dundalk's confidence a world of good, but hopefully the players will realise that in Limerick they faced a very young and inexperienced side of part-time players who only three days previously had a tough home game against Bohemians followed by an arduous trip to Dundalk in difficult weather conditions.

Generously Stephen Kenny in his post match comments made allowance for Limerick's difficulties while at the same time praising the application shown by his players to take the game to Limerick from the very start.

The tonic of two early goals - their first in the League - eased the nerves and with the players confidence visibly growing they clinically dismantled Limerick's token resistance to such an extent that had they taken the opportunities created, especially a number after the interval, they could have added at least four more goals to their tally.

What pleased most was the prospect that the new attacking combinations spearheaded by Pat Hoban looks promising, with the returning striker showing flashes of his hold up play and finishing that was the hallmark of his first title winning season with Dundalk in 2014. 

Hoban's recruitment, and his strengths as a target man, had led to some fears that Stephen Kenny might be tempted to sacrifice his preference for combination, quick-passing style that distinguished Dundalk in recent seasons and won them so many admirers. 

Against Limerick there were hints that Dundalk now have the ability to mix up their game a little more and while a sterner test will be needed before any judgement can be made there were a number of early Spring shoots of promise that the supporting  midfield players can become more of a scoring threat in feeding off Hoban's strength and link play.

Hoban, and indeed, the midfield, did benefit from more decisive passing on the flanks, where Michael Duffy was always a threat, and where Dylan Connolly managed to play himself into the game when the team got on top. 

Both wingers were helped considerably by the support they received from full-backs, Sean Gannon who had an excellent game and Dane Massey who is regaining his best form after a late blip the end of last season caused by injury.     

To what extent the Limerick result will have any bearing on Friday's game against Cork is difficult to gauge, for while the players and management will be delighted to register their first League win and will have gained a lot of confidence from their goal tally, they don't have to be told that an in form Cork will present a different challenge.

Nor can the players take much heart from recent clashes against the Leesiders in League, Cup and President's Cup, for Dundalk have to go back to memorable night in 2016 when Daryl Horgan scored two outstanding goals for their last win over John Caulfield's side. That victory clinched Dundalk's third League in a row, but in the seven games since, including two Cup finals, Cork have held the advantage, including the recent President's Cup game at Oriel Park when they turned a 2-0 half-time deficit into a 4-2 win.

The narrative that has emerged recently among neutral observers and indeed some Dundalk supporters is that after a number of heartbreaking losses in the previous three season, John Caulfield finally found a way to beat Dundalk. True he didn't have to alter his playing style much, but what Caulfield did in all his matches against Dundalk last season was to crowd the midfield to stop Dundalk playing through them, and at the same time delegate his wide players with the task of stopping Dundalk's full-back from supporting their wide players. It was never pretty to watch, but it was effective and got for Cork the results they wanted against Dundalk.

 No doubt Caulfield will adopt the same tactics next Friday, and the question is will Stephen Kenny sacrifice his football principles by fortifying the midfield with an extra player (Stephen O'Donnell if he is fit would be the choice) to compete with Cork's strength in that area and play more to Hoban's strength in attack. Given their impressive start to the campaign, and the confidence gained from their recent win in Oriel Park, Cork will start favourites for they will be under less pressure to win. 

In these circumstances Dundalk will need the backing of a full house, and the vocal support from the start that was evident during their last win over Cork at the same venue in 2016.

Footnote: Ironically two players who featured prominently in a previous Oriel Park clash between the sides scored for their new clubs on Saturday, with Sean Maguire bagging a brace for Preston as he returned from a long lay-off, while Patrick McEleney, who was also out for a long spell with injury, scored on his debut for Oldham, having joined the Division I side in January.

The Argus