Wednesday 21 March 2018

'Just get the first goal' - Dundalk aiming for Champions League comeback to rock Europe

Kenny determined to have no regrets in Champions League decider

Ciaran Kilduff – seen here during the first leg defeat to Legia Warsaw – has been ruled out of tonight’s second leg Picture: Sportsfile
Ciaran Kilduff – seen here during the first leg defeat to Legia Warsaw – has been ruled out of tonight’s second leg Picture: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Once bitten, twice shy? No chance.

The Dundalk players were caught out upon their arrival in Poland on Sunday when they were unprepared for the flurry of mosquitoes that interrupted a short training session. All the proper precautions are in place now.

But, when it comes to the second leg of their Champions League play-off with Legia Warsaw tonight, Stephen Kenny is prepared to throw caution to their wind.

From 2-0 down, he feels there is no other option in their attempt to make history. Keeping it tight until the last 20 minutes and going for it then is not on his mind.

"My attitude to the players is get the first goal and see where it takes us," he said. "Just get the first goal. I understand that playing that way that there could be consequences, I'm not naive. It could leave us exposed.

"I'm thinking that we have to do something remarkable. We are going to have to play brilliantly."

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny

That could well be an understatement. In the course of his musings at the Hotel Regent, Kenny acknowledged that a stunning comeback would not just represent one of the best results in Irish history.

It would be up there with the very best Champions League results given the significance of the game for the lowest-ranked side to reach this stage.

He was determined to accentuate the positive, yet defender Andy Boyle admitted that it took the dressing room 24 hours to really get over the disappointment of the first leg outcome.

The controversial penalty which gave Legia the initiative was the talking point on the night of the match - Boyle was adjudged to have committed a handball - but the 'if only' themed discussions around the Dundalk camp since then have centred on the 94th-minute concession of a second goal on the counter-attack that upgraded the task to mission impossible territory.


"That was probably naive on our part because we were too open," sighed Boyle. "1-0 was not the worst result at all."

Dundalk must travel to Russia and Israel in the Europa League
Dundalk must travel to Russia and Israel in the Europa League

It might have been more palatable if the concession reflected the story of the game. Legia Warsaw felt they did enough to claim the win but the margin of victory was flattering.

They were competitive throughout, appearing to be unfazed by the magnitude of the tie as they kept possession well - albeit without ever really stretching the opposition's experienced rearguard. He took heart from his homework on the match, with Dundalk enjoying as much possession as their wealthier rivals.

"I don't live and die by statistics," he asserted. "But I felt we played very, very well, especially in the first half.

"It (the result) was a very, very harsh lesson. It was a real kick in the teeth. It's not something I felt we deserved."

The odds are stacked against them. He is aware that no other Irish outfit has ever retrieved a tie from this position; it's this Dundalk group which came closer than anyone.

They travelled to Croatia two years ago trailing 2-0 from a first leg Europa League loss to Hadjuk Split at Oriel Park and they didn't even achieve their goal of scoring first. Hadjuk were 3-0 up on aggregate at the break but a pair of quick Dundalk strikes before the final 15 minutes set up a nervy ending.

That took Hadjuk by surprise. Legia are taking no chances this time around, however, with manager Besnik Hasi making it clear that they still have work to do to end a 21-year wait for Champions League football and secure a breakthrough which will move them to the next level in a league that is miles ahead of the League of Ireland in terms of infrastructure and resources.

Hasi made ten changes for a 3-1 loss at home to Arka Gdynia on Saturday. A repeat of that scoreline would be enough for Dundalk to progress, but he will roll the big guns out again.

When Kenny learned of Legia's team selection for that encounter, it told him everything he needed to know about their mindset even if comments from club officials in local media have planted the perception that they feel the hard work is done. "I think if they were complacent, they wouldn't have rested their whole team," he said. "I think their coach knows there was nothing in the game."

A nation expects progression with a capacity crowd of 31,000 expected in the Polish Army Stadium. Legia will be urged to take control early and remove suspense from a major occasion in their centenary year.

"When I visited here recently, there was a sense this was their coronation," explained Kenny, "Their league form is irrelevant. The total focus is on this.

"They replaced their manager, who won the league last year, because they want to get into the Champions League. It's their big day."

The visitors will have to use their European experience to withstand that pressure and the unavailability of the composed Stephen O'Donnell due to suspension is a major setback.

Ciaran Kilduff is also out after picking up an injury in training on Saturday which has really frustrated Kenny. David McMillan is the only senior striker available.

Clever use of the squad has helped the Lilywhites through two rounds but Kenny may not be able to hold too many bullets in reserve. Ronan Finn and Robbie Benson are vying to fill O'Donnell's role.

Whatever happens, this week will end for Dundalk on a high with a draw for group stage football that will keep them occupied until December.

They are refusing to contemplate the Europa League options when they still have an outside chance to dine at the top table. It would be a surprise if they went down quietly.

Legia Warsaw v Dundalk, Live, TV3/BT Sport 3, 7.45pm

Irish Independent

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