Tuesday 12 December 2017

Kenny fears 'farcical' Monday-Thursday fixture list

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

By the time Dundalk complete their Group D campaign in Israel on December 8, the League of Ireland champions will have travelled to six different countries on their European adventure.

Sounds exotic but when you consider that Dundalk have already played in hostile environments like Belarus and Poland, daunting trips to Russia and Israel won't exactly be welcomed in the border county.

In truth, yesterday's Europa League draw was almost as nightmarish as possible for Stephen Kenny's side who will face Zenit Saint Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv but their recent performances will certainly lessen the fear factor.

Supporters will have to dig deep into their pockets to make both long-distance away trips, while both will also be logistically challenging for the club.

"It's an interesting draw," said Kenny, who while relishing the journey ahead, is concerned about the inevitable fixture congestion.

"There is the possibility that we could be forced to play league matches a couple of days before the Europa League games. That would completely diminish any chance we have of getting results in Europe," he said.

"Our club secretary says we might have to play league games on a Monday before a Thursday match. I think that would be farcical.

"We would be shooting ourselves in the foot if that was the case. If we have to do that, we are giving ourselves no chance.

"I'm not sure what the solution is in relation to that. We need some creative thinking and we need people to be creative in the way they plan the fixtures."

Dundalk are set to play their home games in Tallaght Stadium where extra work is likely to be needed to meet UEFA's requirements for the group stages.

The financial incentives remain crucial with approximately €360,000 on offer for a win and €120,000 for a draw.

Zenit are Champions League regulars but then again so too are BATE Borisov and look where they are now after facing the Lilywhites.

The Russian powerhouses are not the force they were a couple of seasons ago with plenty of their star players (as well as their manager Andre Villas-Boas) jumping ship but they are not the second-ranked side in the competition for no reason.

Alex Witsel, who scored against Ireland for Belgium at the Euro finals, is their key player and travelling to Petersburg will be as intimidating an atmosphere as Dundalk will play in.

AZ may not evoke as much fear as other Dutch clubs such as Ajax or PSV but they have plenty of experience in their ranks.

Maccabi played in the Champions League last season and although they were beaten in all six games, including twice by Chelsea, seasoned Israeli internationals such as Yossi Benayoun and Tal Ben Haim are well used to the European stage.

Manchester United have been drawn alongside Robin van Persie's Fenerbahce, Feyenoord and Zorya Luhansk (Ukraine), while Southampton will take on Inter Milan, Sparta Prague and Hapoel Be'er Sheva.

Meanwhile, UEFA has staved off the threat of a breakaway Super League with a series of changes to the Champions League format that will help increase the guaranteed income of the biggest and most famous clubs.

Most eye-catching of the changes, which will take effect for the three years from 2018-19, is the guarantee that the top four clubs in those leagues with the best coefficient - currently Spain, England, Germany and Italy - will make up half of the 32 teams in the group phase.

Significantly, a club and therefore a league's coefficient will be influenced by 'historic success' - such as previous European Cup wins - rather than just their performance in more recent seasons. More money is also being promised in the three-year commercial cycle from 2018.

There is concern among the smaller European leagues at how the reduction in their places will work, but UEFA has promised that the 'Champions' pathway for winners of smaller domestic leagues will remain, with the detail yet to be finalised.

(All Thursdays)

September 15: AZ Alkmaar (away)

Sept29: Maccabi Tel Aviv (home)

Oct 20: Zenit St Petersburg (home)

Nov 3: Zenit St Petersburg (away)

Nov 24: AZ Alkmaar (home)

Dec 8: Maccabi Tel Aviv (away)

Irish Independent

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