Dundalk's immense European effort comes up just short as Zenit's class shows late on
Dundalk 1 Zenit St Petersburg 2
Logic suggested that a team assembled for €145m and stacked with internationals would triumph and, in the end, logic prevailed.
But it came about in a manner which left Stephen Kenny with his fair share of if onlys.
Would Dundalk have maintained the energy to hold onto their shock second-half lead if this wasn’t their fifth game in 12 days?
What if Dane Massey’s header had converted a chance that struck the woodwork just after Robbie Benson’s opener?
How would the night have panned out if a Gabriel Sava miskick hadn’t paved the way for a Zenit equaliser?
They are the regrets but, ultimately, the three points went to the side that owned the ball for the majority of the match and continued to introduce quality off the bench to retrieve the sticky situation created by a goalkeeping howler.
It was a testing night for the Russians as the League of Ireland champions again showed that they were comfortable in elite company and gave a sell-out crowd value for money.
And Sava’s last minute penalty stop avoided a scoreline that would have given the wrong impression of the evening.
Dundalk went close to another miracle.
Kenny had joked before the game that Dundalk would avoid operating a ‘low block’, a phrase that has come into vogue for a situation where a team is pushed back to the extent where its wingers become defenders.
There were portions of this game where that was essentially the case, though, as a Russian side with 11 internationals stroked the ball around comfortably during the first half with Belgian star Axel Witsel - who dominated Ireland in the Euros - able to play within himself.
They were unable to penetrate when they advanced further forward with coach Mircea Lucescu increasingly animated on the sideline. In the first 45, there was only one moment where the opposition really cut through the home rearguard and it ended with a misdirected cross from right full Aleksandr Anyukov.
Otherwise, they didn’t get much change from centre halves Andy Boyle and Brian Gartland with the midfield three of Chris Shields, Benson and Ronan Finn providing energetic support.
They also needed the legs to get forward to support David McMillan and, for all that the opening half was about Dundalk keeping their shape, they did have the best opportunity to open the scoring.
It came in the seventh minute when Finn outpaced Nicolas Lombaerts in racing onto a McMillan pass but his right footer fizzed just inches wide of the post. There were other half chances too when Benson broke, while Daryl Horgan was kept relatively quiet with set pieces his only avenue to really come to the fore.
But from the restart, Zenit really should have gone ahead when they did breach the Dundalk line. Big man Artem Dyzuba produced the cliche friendly good touch for a big man and slotted in Oleg Shatov who passed the ball wide.
Those opportunities tend to create the fear that the big gun are about to step it up a notch.
Instead, it was the catalyst for Dundalk to go to the other end and break the deadlock. Finn’s persistence forced a Zenit error and McMillan nipped in for an attempted pass that clipped off Lombaerts into the path of Benson.
The UCD graduate strode forward and decided to buy a ticket for the lottery by attempting a left footer; Russian keeper Yuri Lodykin was asleep at the till and allowed the swerving shot to fly over his legs and into the net. There was almost a half second of stunned silence before the celebrations kicked off.
Zenit were rattled too. Unsurprisingly, they piled bodies forward in search of an equaliser. Yet they were also frustrated by the situation with three of their defenders picking up cautions for fouls as Dundalk embraced space on the break.
From one such situation, a Horgan free was headed off the post by Massey and, suddenly, it was the blue shirts that were living on the edge.
But it was inevitable that Zenit would continue to impose and they were able to call on Russia’s starting striker from the Euros, Aleksandr Kokorin, as an emergency sub. He had threatened before Zenit managed to level.
Unfortunately for Dundalk, the wound was self inflicted as Shields found himself under pressure and passed back to Gabriel Sava who skied his attempted clearance and, when the ball landed, Zenit had a man over which they cleverly utilised with Slovakia’s Robert Mak calmly dispatching with his right foot.
The topless Zenit fans in the East Stand finally had something to celebrate. Dundalk were just about to bring Ciaran Kilduff for the tiring McMillan so it was a punch in the stomach for Kenny.
That change went ahead and Zenit came back for more, withdrawing Javi Garcia for the more offensively minded Mauricio. Yet it was a positive advance from £25m rated Witsel that settled the outcome.
He turned cleverly into the box and engineered a situation that created a simple tap in for Giuliano.
Dundalk tried to summon up the energy for a comeback and it looked to be game over when Gartland felled another sub - Luka Djordevic - but Sava kept out Maurico’s spot kick.
The three minutes of added time which followed would not produce another twist.
Dundalk – Sava, Gannon, Boyle, Gartland, Massey; Shields (Shiels 86), Finn; McEleney, Benson (Mountney 78), Horgan; McMillan (Kilduff 71)
Zenit – Lodygin, Anyukov, Lombaerts, Neto, Criscito; Witsel, Garcia (Mauricio 71); Mak (Djordevic 78), Giuliano, Shatov (Kokorin 61); Dzyuba
Ref – M Jelinka (Czech Republic)