Frustrated Dundalk held to goalless draw in first leg of Europa League qualifying clash
Dundalk 0 AEK Larnaca 0
On the eve of this Europa League tie, Stephen Kenny was asked if he had any strong feelings about playing at home first.
It was a difficult question to answer but he will have to stress the positives in the aftermath of a scoreless draw that sets up an intriguing decider in Larnaca next Thursday.
This was always going to be a tight game, and it was important that Dundalk didn’t concede an away goal as Larnaca showed against Cork City 12 months ago that they have the experience to make it count - although this was a managerial debut for their new Spanish coach Andoni Iraola.
But Dundalk have scored in nine of their ten away European games under Kenny and adding another game to that sequence will give them a very strong chance of progression.
This was an encounter which could have swung either way. Dundalk had periods of pressure and finished strongly, with some rash decisions in the final third letting them down.
Yet they rode their luck at times too, with the Cypriots missing golden opportunities in each half that would have left them in an extremely strong position.
They posed problems for their hosts, with their technical assurance still apparent on a bobbly pitch in front of a sell-out crowd.
Iraola was able to name six of his fellow countrymen in the starting XI and a three-man defence with talented Spanish operators in the centre of the park gave them a decent base.
They were capable of keeping the ball well but they also had wing backs who were ghosting into dangerous positions and a block from Sean Hoare was required to deny Joan Tomas in the first half.
Hoare was selected at right-back after an injury suffered in preparations by Sean Gannon and while it’s not a like for like replacement, he was involved in some promising moments going forward. Dundalk consistently worked themselves into position where the final pass or shot was lacking.
Michael Duffy was dangerous throughout and came closest with a curler that shaved the outside of the post as Larnaca were consistently guilty of showing the dangerman onto his preferred right foot.
All things considered it was a fairly even opening 45 with some encouraging periods for the natives.
However, Larnaca stepped things up from the restart, working hard high up the pitch and pressing Dundalk into mistakes.
They were guilty of two big misses with Apostolos Giannou fluffing his lines from close range following a set-piece and the unmarked Acoran Berrera volleying wide after another cross found a spare man at the back post.
In the search for midfield control, Kenny opted to bring in Patrick McEleney for his first game since his return to the club from Oldham.
Chances duly followed with Duffy’s energy starting to trouble Larnaca again. After a quiet spell in his head to head with right wing-back Igor Silva, the Derry native found the space for two strikes on goal that were gathered by keeper Tono Ramirez.
There was drama when Dundalk top scorer Pat Hoban was shown a second yellow card by a confused referee who called him back after realising he hadn’t booked him earlier in the game.
He frustrated the tense locals with some fussy decisions in a tie that is sure to be decided by the finest of margins.
Elsewhere, Aberdeen held Burnley to a 1-1 draw at Pittodrie, as Sam Vokes’ strike 10 minutes from time cancelled out Gary Mackay-Steven’s penalty after 19 minutes to leave the Premier League side with a marginal advantage heading into next week’s second leg at Turf Moor.