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Dundalk hold nerve to earn Europa ticket

Europa League: Dundalk 3 Ki Klaksvik 1


Sean Murray celebrates after scoring Dundalk’s first goal at the Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: Sportsfile

Sean Murray celebrates after scoring Dundalk’s first goal at the Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: Sportsfile

Sean Murray celebrates after scoring Dundalk’s first goal at the Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: Sportsfile

At the full time whistle, Filippo Giovagnoli and Giuseppe Rossi shared a warm embrace, two friends from a tiny village in Italy celebrating the achievement of taking a small town from Ireland into the group stages of the Europa League.

2020 has brought them into a parallel universe, delivering a victory with life-changing potential for a club that was in danger of becoming a punchline until the sight of rock bottom and the positive influence of their new arrivals inspired the dressing room to take a breath and focus.

Now they can look forward to things they never expected from this year.

The rain had fallen hard for most of the second half, similar to the conditions in the dying stages of the win over BATE Borisov in 2016 that brought Stephen Kenny's team to their promised land.

It's probably the only comparison that stands between then and now, in terms of the build-up to crossing the threshold.

Kenny's moment was the result of almost four years in the job. For Giovagnoli, it's come about after a 40-day kamikaze mission that has taken him to uncharted territory.

On Friday morning, his side will be in the Europa League group stage draw along with Spurs, AC Milan, Leicester, Roma, Napoli, Benfica and a selection of other elite clubs from around the continent. It's a surreal state of affairs for the Italians, given they had never coached at senior men's level before this gig.

This achievement will now sit permanently on their CV, and justifies the decision to bring them into an environment soured by the post-restart madness that spelled the end for Vinny Perth and looked to represent the end of an era.

A return to the Europa League group stage represents a dramatic plot twist, especially as there was a feeling outside the club that the American owners would cut their losses and run if they kept coming up short on this stage.

This line of thought underestimated the extent to which the backers were concerned about the balance sheet at this remove; Dundalk recorded a €1.2m loss last year and informed sources say they were on course for a figure closer to €2m this time around.

Three wins in three weeks have effectively succeeded in wiping the slate clean, an absurd reminder of the volatility of the football industry and the role that a favourable series of draws can have in making things possible.

But while the quirky series of events that set up this showdown with Ki Klaksvik succeeded in opening the door for Giovagnoli's side, they still had to walk through it.

Dundalk's full-time team professionally executed their task to become the first Irish team to prevail in three European ties in the same season.

The imposing physical nature of the blue-shirted players made it clear that it was going to be a battle, although the suspicion lingered in the home camp that the wide expanses of the Aviva would not suit a side that likes to operate on a compact surface at home where they can get the ball from back to front quickly and dominate teams.

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With Patrick McEleney replacing the suspended Chris Shields and Greg Sloggett reverting to the defensive midfield role, Dundalk were planning to have plenty of possession and there were early moments which demonstrated the space that was available if they moved the ball quickly.

Dundalk's breakthrough goal came when they steadied things down to enjoy a sustained spell of possession and escape from a maze of bodies.

The route to goal was direct, with right full Sean Hoare swinging a deep cross into the box where the strength and awareness of Patrick Hoban delivered a header that served as the perfect assist for the inrushing Sean Murray who was alert and brave in nodding the ball beyond Kristian Joensen.

This gave Dundalk a half time advantage, and the onus was on the underdogs to come out and play. But it was the natives who drove on to double their lead, with Michael Duffy and Darragh Leahy combining to force a corner that exposed some unconvincing goalkeeping from Joesen with centre half Daniel Cleary on hand to convert following an ungainly scramble.

KI began to pose questions in attack and both Gary Rogers and Brian Gartland had made important blocks before the visitors added suspense to the final quarter. Norwegian target man Ole Erik Midtskogan found space to let rip from 20 yards and his right footer fizzed beyond Rogers. Their best move of the match created a chance that was fluffed by Faroes international Patrick Johannesen.

The punishment was instantaneous. Dundalk countered and Murray was strong, finding the space to release Daniel Kelly with the Ringsend man enjoying his finest moment just around the corner from where he grew up with a composed finish.