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Fitness key if Arnhem’s not to be a bridge too far for Dundalk


Dundalk goalkeeper Alessio Abibi. Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile

Dundalk goalkeeper Alessio Abibi. Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile

Dundalk goalkeeper Alessio Abibi. Photo: Ben McShane/Sportsfile

The first time an Irish club faced Dutch opposition in Europe, the boys from Holland were caught out as Dundalk, playing in only their third UEFA campaign, knocked out an outfit called DOS Utrecht.

And with Vitesse Arnhem playing only their first competitive game of the season tonight at home to the Louth outfit (6pm), Dundalk ’keeper Alessio Abibi hopes that the superior fitness and match sharpness of a Lilywhites side playing their 26th game of the season will stand to them.

Dundalk, who welcome Michael Duffy back to their squad after Covid issues left him sidelined, have already managed three wins from four games in their battles in the Europa Conference League, against opposition from Wales and Estonia.

And while Vitesse, with six senior internationals in their squad, are clearly a step up in quality, Dundalk enter battle with some positive mood music from their recent European form, with good memories by some veterans of their superb 1-1 draw away to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar in 2016.

“Going through in Europe, you are challenged every time by better teams,” says Abibi, the Italian-born ’keeper who has played at underage level for Albania.

“We started with Wales, then a team that was better, and now Vitesse, and we all know the level of the Netherlands’ football. So it will be a big challenge for us. Maybe they will not be on top form because their season has not started yet. I expect a big European night as always, we try to play our football and then football is football, you never know what will happen.”

Since their domestic season ended in May, Vitesse have had six friendly matches to prepare for this test on what they hope is progress to at least the play-off round where the mighty Anderlecht, club of Ireland international Josh Cullen, await, once they account for Albanian side Laci in the third round.

Vitesse have a history with Ireland – they played their first game in Europe against Derry City in 1990 and laboured to a 1-0 aggregate win, and they have only had intermittent campaigns in Europe in the last two decades, the highlight coming in 2017/’18 when they reached the group stage of the Europa League.

Last term was one of their best-ever campaigns as they finished fourth in the league and reached the Dutch cup final, the squad boosted by the financial muscle of Russian owners: Vitesse were the first Dutch club to pass into foreign ownership.

Noted of late as a feeder club for Chelsea with loan spells for players like Mason Mount, Vitesse are eyeing up a run in Europe. Dundalk also have ambition as Abibi wants to use this stage to press his claims for promotion to the Albanian senior squad.

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“I’ve been an international all the ages from the 17s, 18s, 19s and 21s. But the senior is a bit difficult,” Abibi says.

“Albania have two goalkeepers who play in Serie A, one is with Lazio and the other signed this year for Torino and then there is the third choice who plays in Turkey.  I know they are interested so maybe soon, I can maybe receive a call from them. Let’s see, the most important thing is the European games and Dundalk then everything will come, of course.”

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