Stephen Kenny sets high Europa League target for Dundalk
Stephen Kenny has urged his Dundalk players to set a new target of qualifying from their Europa League group after the disappointment of their Champions League exit at the hands of Legia Warsaw.
The League of Ireland champions bounced back from a 2-0 defeat in the first leg to push the Polish champions all the way in last night's decider.
Robbie Benson's stunning 19th minute volley put the Lilywhites ahead on the night and they went searching for the second that would have brought the €15m tie to extra-time.
However, they ran out of steam in the second half despite Legia being reduced to ten when Adam Hlousek was sent off and they conceded a goal at the death when Michal Kucharczyk ended Poland's 20 year wait for Champions League qualification.
Kenny always believed that Dundalk were capable of turning the tie around and he was frustrated by the 'missed' opportunity as he reflected on the controversial penalty and injury time strike that gave Warsaw a two goal cushion from the first joust at the Aviva Stadium.
In the short term, Dundalk have to return to league business and a date with Wexford Youths on Friday as they seek to have another crack at Europe's premier competition next term.
But Kenny feels they can also aim high when they prepare for another six matches that will be decided by the Europa League group stage draw earlier in the day.
Possible opponents include the likes of Manchester United, Roma, Inter Milan and a host of other clubs from Europe's top leagues.
"We didn't want to think about the fallback of the Europa League as it would diminish our hunger to get to the Champions League," said Kenny, "We are in the Europa League now and it's an amazing achievement and a testament to our players.
"It's too early to reflect as we don't know what our group is but, yes, we will be trying to progress in that competition and qualify from our group."
Dundalk have banked a figure in the region of €6m from their exploits to date and group stage football offers extra incentives. Every win would be worth €360,000 with €120,000 for a draw.
They did run out of ideas in the second half against Legia with the unavailability of Ciaran Kilduff and the suspended Stephen O'Donnell exposing the lack of depth in Kenny's small squad. Legia had the resources to bring on seasoned internationals and close the game out.
"They've more European experience than us and it may have told," said Benson, "When they went down to ten men, we didn't create any chances and that is very, very disappointing but that's football."
Kenny will strengthen his squad by adding ex-Sligo defender Alan Keane - who has come out of retirement - and Northern Ireland international midfielder Dean Shiels. The latter is the son of Derry boss Kenny and has spent the majority of his career in Scotland. He parted company with Rangers in the summer after four seasons at Ibrox.
Kenny acknowledged that issues with strength in depth might have cost the underdogs when it came to the crunch.
“We need to improve the numbers as we have a very small squad,” he said. “A couple of players could have made a difference. We showed that we’re a very good team and we went close to knocking Legia out which probably would have been the biggest shock in European football. We went close to that.”
Legia had prepared for a night of celebration but the mood was subdued because of an unconvincing performance. The post-match lap of honour was notable for some criticism from their hardcore fans.
Dundalk will hope to make life difficult for some more wealthier opponents in the next phase of their adventure. A final decision on whether they stage their Europa League games in the Aviva Stadium or Tallaght will be taken this week with UEFA’s input and a variety of other logistical issues to consider.