David McMillan keeps Dundalk on track for €1.2m bonus
BATE BORISOV 2 DUNDALK 1
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny believes that his team are capable of raising the performance level another notch next Wednesday in the second leg of their Champions League qualifier.
The League of Ireland champions were disappointed by the manner in which they conceded two first-half goals, but Dave McMillan's strike means that a 1-0 win at Oriel Park would be enough for Dundalk to cause a massive Champions League upset and earn them a €1.2m reward.
Kenny was proud of his players, who shocked a BATE side with ambitions of qualifying for the group stages.
Their coach, Aleksandr Yermakovich, admitted they have been taken by surprise, saying: "They play football in a very professional way."
And Kenny feels the wealthy Belarusians could be in for another surprise in the return.
"Even though we lost 2-1, I'm coming in knowing that we can play better. That's the thing about our performance," he said.
"There are huge differences between the clubs. BATE have been in the group stages four times, whereas we're in this competition for the first time in 20 years.
"But there's no going away from the fact that Dave McMillan's goal gives us a chance in Ireland. We're not saying the second game will be easier but we believe in this team and believe in what we're doing in Dundalk."
There was a mood of apprehension in the lavish stadium at full time following a tie where this young Dundalk side showed they can mix it in this company. The only sore point from their perspective was that BATE didn't have to work hard for their goals.
After ten minutes, they demonstrated ruthless efficiency to punish the first mistake from the visitors as Chris Shields turned into trouble, and the experienced Vitali Rodionov pounced to release Aleksandr Kamitski, who powered the ball past Gary Rogers.
It was a punch in the stomach after a purposeful start from a selection which contained a few surprises, with Ronan Finn and Darren Meenan missing out. Shields was brought into midfield to add solidity, while John Mountney started out wide to curb the treat of BATE's offensively minded left-full Filip Mladenovi.
Andy Boyle was passed fit to partner Brian Gartland in the centre of defence, but the latter was unwell during the day because of a virus and nearly missed out.
"He wanted to play," said Kenny, "We had a few injuries but everyone came through it."
Dundalk regrouped after the concession and applied pressure - the difference was they missed their first big chance.
It fell to lone striker McMillan, who fired over an empty net at the second attempt after his initial header from a Richie Towell cross was blocked. But the horror miss bred hope and they were then denied by a fine Sergei Chernik stop from a Dane Massey header.
BATE were taken aback as Dundalk advanced, with Towell and Daryl Horgan a menace.
They deserved the equaliser that came their way, even if it was created by an attempted BATE tackle on Horgan that sent the ball into the path of the grateful McMillan, who calmly slotted the ball under Chernik to atone for his earlier error.
Alas, within five minutes, the men in yellow had retained their advantage as a speculative effort from Evgeni Yablonski came off Shields to wrong-foot the helpless Rogers.
It meant that the Irishmen started the second half playing catch-up, with the movement of the tidy Igor Stasevich and Mikhail Gordeichuk BATE's main threat in general play. They were angry too, accusing Rodionov of a headbutt on Massey immediately after the fortuitous goal.
Rodionov, capped 46 times by Belarus, was furious with himself for an errant touch in a period before the hour mark where Dundalk rode their luck. He would have been through on goal with sharper application.
Towell was also guilty of fluffing his lines from a Massey centre, but Dundalk adventure was leaving gaps and a set-piece arising from a break culminated with Rogers stopping a Nemanja Milunovic header.
Boyle was called into action for a last-ditch stop as the Belarusians pressed again.
As the clock ticked into the final quarter, Dundalk tightened up as signs of fatigue crept in. Finn came off the bench for a rare taste of life as a lone striker with McMillan called ashore.
"We felt the first half score wasn't a reflection of the game," said Kenny, "The second half was different. BATE were in the ascendency without having any real clear-cut chances."
Timely interceptions from Sean Gannon and solid keeping from Rogers kept BATE at bay; there were whistles from the stands as a series of Dundalk injuries slowed play down, with the imperious Stephen O'Donnell emptying the gas tank. He was exceptional.
The small band of away fans were delighted when the Serbian ref brought an end to proceedings. They will spend the next week salivating over the prospect of an unlikely progression.