Gallant Dundalk left to rue away opportunity as BATE progress
Dundalk 0 BATE Borisov 0
Crushing disappointment for Dundalk, but this will not go down as the familiar League of Ireland hard luck story.
The border club exited the Champions League by the narrowest margin to the hands of a seasoned BATE outfit that will harbour ambitions of progressing to the group stages for the fifth time.
And, when it came to the crunch, the attributes which have brought them across the line came to the fore as they managed to restrict a team that is used to opening teams up at Oriel Park.
Stephen Kenny's charges found it was a different story on a night where their usual fluency was lacking. Indeed, their display in the Borisov Arena was superior in terms of ball retention.
The lingering regret will be that they didn't capitalise on the gaps they found on foreign climes and secure a result that would have forced BATE to go chasing here.
Much as the Belarusians showed the ambition to put this tie beyond doubt, they had the discipline to freeze out Kenny's boys when they crossed the halfway line. They were only carved open once in the 90 minutes.
Dundalk started this game knowing that one goal would do thanks to Dave McMillan’s strike in Belarus last week, and that remained the situation at the interval despite pre-match predictions that this game would have plenty of goals in it.
In truth, after a feverish build-up and the excitement generated by a lengthy rendition of the competition anthem, the match started in a manner which appeared to support that theory. The problem for Dundalk is that it was the away corner who looked like doing all the scoring.
Vitaly Rodionov, lucky to be involved after his headbutt on Dane Massey, could have put them ahead inside two minutes but skied a volley over the bar as the Dundalk rearguard was caught napping.
This was typical of a period where the natives were struggling to get grips with the game, aside from the composed Stephen O’Donnell who was in need of players on a similar wavelength.
Kenny had opted to restore Ronan Finn to his side in place of Chris Shields, and Darren Meenan for John Mountney and the two newcomers were unable to really make an impact as a physical BATE outfit initially coped pretty well with whatever Dundalk had to offer even if their discomfort on the surface was apparent.
Beforehand, a number of their party spent the warm-up rubbing their hands along the artificial glass and exchanging views.
Rodionov had another effort blocked by O’Donnell before Ihar Stasevich cut in from the left to curl a handful of attempts off target.
Crucially, Dundalk survived this period and managed to settle after the first quarter, despite the inabiity to really get the dangerous Daryl Horgan into the game. Unlike last week, BATE stuck pretty tight to the Galwegian as soon as he gained possession.
Still, as Dundalk pressed, a clearcut opportunity followed as Nemanja Milunovic got himself in a muddle and Finn nipped in to release McMillan who weaved into the area and let fly with a left footer that Sergei Chernik blocked. That was the moment.
It was a break that bred hope, yet the chance of the half fell to the yellow and blue shirted group stage regulars. Sensing Dundalk unease following a set piece that had Gary Rogers scrambling, they probed again and Rodionov found Stasevich in space behind Sean Gannon; his shot was brilliantly pushed onto the crossbar by Rogers.
Dundalk needed the whistle and the opportunity to regroup. The local mood had switched to apprehension; a false rumour swept the stands that Meenan had received a second yellow card in the tunnel. There were a few cheers when he trotted back out.
Within ten minutes he was replaced, however, as Kenny sent for the solidity of Shields in order to free Towell into a more attacking role. Alas, he remained subdued in front of the watching Martin O'Neill.
Finn switched to the right where his main task was to track roaming left full Filip Mladenovic and that didn’t start well as the Serbian raced in behind to drill wide with Rogers beaten. Dundalk had to take risks, though, with BATE reasonably competent in terms of keeping them at arm’s length.
As the clock ticked into its final quarter, and BATE sent in their new recruit Nemanja Nikolic, a Montenegrin international, Kenny urged his troops to lift it with a stirring run from Gannon lifting the volume.
BATE, by contrast, carved openings through brief passages of play which hinted at their pedigree with Nikolic ghosting into the space to smash into the netting behind Rogers’ goal from a purposeful foray.
Dundalk were hoping for a favourable outcome by dispatching crosses into the area with Horgan coming to life.
With fifteen minutes to go, Kenny preparing his final moves by calling Finn ashore and sending in Mountney, an individual that has developed a knack of striking at key moments.
Kurtis Byrne was sent in for Horgan in an attempt to turn the tide as the Louthmen defended a corner. They were withstanding pressure as opposed to applying it.
And they were unable to really reverse that position as the seconds ticked by and the fourth official signalled for three minutes of time added on. BATE haven't qualified for the group stages on four occasions by accident, and they scraped through on away goals at this phase 12 months ago.
Their experience shone in seeing this out, with Dundalk bodies dropping to the ground at the final whistle before minor scuffles broke out as evidence of tension between the camps flared up. Rodionov's availability remains a sore point.
It fizzled out as the Dundalk players left to a warm ovation. They didn't want pats on the back and compliments; they wanted to succeed, but the sympathetic response was forthcoming anyway.
Kenny's challenge now is to keep this group together, retain the title and come back for another crack next year. That will entail a lot of work.
With second placed Cork now due in town on Sunday, they will have to pick themselves up and start that mission immediately.