Tuesday 12 December 2017

Dundalk skipper O'Donnell says champions have strength to succeed in Europe like 2011 Hoops heroes

Stephen O'Donnell previously helped Shamrock Rovers progress in the Europa League and is now hoping to do the same with Dundalk
Stephen O'Donnell previously helped Shamrock Rovers progress in the Europa League and is now hoping to do the same with Dundalk
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Almost four years on from a historic strike in Belgrade, Stephen O'Donnell lands in Belarus today hoping to play a significant part in another major European upset.

It was the Galwegian's calmness under pressure that booked Shamrock Rovers a passage into the Europa League group stages, with his late penalty in that epic triumph over Partizan bringing the Hoops to the promised land.

Tomorrow night, he intends to begin another adventure with a Dundalk side which he rates as more dynamic than Michael O'Neill's impressively efficient Rovers group.

The experienced 29-year-old is conscious that Stephen Kenny's side will have to mix those qualities in their Champions League qualifier with BATE Borisov machine that will expect to end Dundalk's European campaign at the first hurdle.

It's an extremely tough draw for the Louth men, seeing as they will encounter a big-spending operation that has qualified for the group stages of the elite competition in five of the past seven seasons.

BATE are mid-season too, so there will be no advantage in terms of match sharpness.

Still, O'Donnell knows what it takes to get things done in this kind of arena and feels that his younger colleagues are on the same page after an away win over Hadjuk Split in the Europa League a year ago - even though it was not enough to keep them in the competition after losing at Oriel Park.

"For a lot of the lads, it was their first time playing in Europe," says O'Donnell, who found spectating in Croatia the hardest part of his long-term knee injury.

"And no matter how much you say you're never going to give teams too much respect. . . you're always going to have that little bit of fear.

"The boys went out against Split and I would say they were a bit inhibited, a bit timid and not playing our normal game.

"But when it came to the last 10 minutes in Split, and it was stifling hot, there was only one team on the front foot and that gives us a lot of confidence."

Essentially, his point is that the strongest aspects of Dundalk's normal game should be suited to this type of challenge. Kenny's charges have performed like champions this term, save for some recent defensive lapses. But their ability to break at pace and hurt teams should suit them in a fixture where they will have to pick their moments to strike.

In the athletic department, they are arguably the strongest team to emerge from the domestic game in a decade.

"Our fitness and athleticism is very good, the best I've been involved in," stresses O'Donnell. "You have to dedicate your life if you want to have a chance. And that fitness, our dynamism, our pace on the counter should suit us in terms of how we're going to set up.

"We can be more explosive and put a team to the sword, whereas at Rovers it was more methodical, we had a base that was hard to break down. If we went 1-0 up, it was likely we'd see it out.

"Our team now is more flamboyant and more attacking; and this group has, by miles, the fittest group and the best athletes. It's hard to compare because what that Rovers team did was special, but I definitely feel that physically, this team is the best equipped."

O'Donnell's exploits in this sphere have taught him to expect opponents with a speed of movement and thought which is a step above what League of Ireland players encounter on a weekly basis. Hence, the need to be mentally tuned in to BATE's strategy.

After the draw was made, Kenny travelled to Belarus on a scouting mission and, over the weekend, the players became students at the Dundalk Institute of Technology as they watched video clips of the odds-on favourites to advance.

"They look similar to Split in some ways with their patterns of play," muses O'Donnell. "From playing in Europe before, you come up against lads that are a yard quicker and very strong. I wouldn't say they are doing anything unbelievable on the ball - it's just the speed they do it at."

Dundalk have geared their week towards ensuring they are capable of lasting the course in a tie that will guarantee the winners €1.2m from UEFA in this era of increased prize funds.

"You can never predict football matches," asserts O'Donnell. "If we do our things well, we'd be fairly confident of getting a result."

Irish Independent

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