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Neutral venue helps to lift Dundalk gloom but tough task awaits

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Dundalk goalkeeper Gary Rogers. Photo: Sportsfile

Dundalk goalkeeper Gary Rogers. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Dundalk goalkeeper Gary Rogers. Photo: Sportsfile

Almost 30 years after they shocked the locals in Budapest by nabbing a score draw against the once-mighty Honved, Dundalk prepare to head back to Hungary next week for a one-off game which could define their season and their short-term future.

The Covid-19 pandemic means that a one-off away tie in the first round of the Champions League against Slovenian side NK Celje cannot be played in Slovenia, even though yesterday's draw handed them home advantage.

So the home of FC Ujpest, in Budapest's suburbs, will host the tie on Wednesday week.

The enforced removal of home advantage from the Slovenians is a plus for Dundalk in a tricky tie, and contributed to a partial lifting of the weekend gloom over Oriel Park.

"It takes on a different dimension as it's a one-off tie in a neutral venue, it's winner-takes-all, more like a cup final," says Dundalk goalkeeper Gary Rogers.

"It will be the same for both teams, a neutral venue and no fans admitted, so there's no real advantage.

"Our squad has played a lot of games in Europe so we have experience, but we can't take anyone for granted."

Dundalk's league status looked grim on Friday night after a loss to Bohemians, and while an early lead for Derry City at home to table toppers Shamrock Rovers last night raised hope in the Dundalk camp that the Hoops' march could be halted, Stephen Bradley's side regrouped to win 2-1.

They're now eight points ahead of Dundalk and with just 11 games remaining, it will be hard for the champions to haul that back.

With that domestic issue nagging them, making an impression in Europe is vital, to the finances of the club as well as its image.

There is a back door into the Europa League for Dundalk if Celje win the tie, but progress in the Champions League, after disappointment 12 months ago, has to be key for Vinny Perth's outfit.

The club from central Slovenia were anything but a dream draw for Dundalk as they not only posed a threat on the field but also logistical problems due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

The Lilywhites have advantages over their Slovenian opponents in terms of overall experience in European competition.

Relative novices in Europe, in their three attempts (2012-'15) Celje have lost at the first-round stage, outwitted by opposition from Moldova, Norway and Poland.

Dundalk, of course, can boast of better in the last decade, the run to the group stages of the Europa League in 2016 and first-round wins in their last two European campaigns.

But Dundalk have also found Europe to be an unforgiving place; opposition from Azerbaijan and Slovakia were simply too strong for them last year.

And a return of two goals from the last eight games in Europe is a concern.

History

"Any game in Europe is tough, you can read too much into seedings or past history, they have won the Slovenian league so they are clearly a decent side, there is quality in that league," added Rogers.

And there's the domestic form to throw into the mix, Dundalk with just one point from two games since the league restarted, as they looked flat in a draw at home to St Patrick's Athletic and were off the pace in Friday's loss to Bohemians.

"We have two games this week and that's a chance to go and get wins and pick up our form, we know that form can change very quickly," says Rogers.

Irish Independent