'We feel deflated' - Stephen Kenny reflects on 'narrow margins' as brace Dundalk fall short
Dundalk 1 Zenit 2
Logic suggested that a squad assembled for €145m and stacked with internationals would triumph and, in the end, logic prevailed.
But it came about in a manner which left Stephen Kenny with his fair share of if-onlys.
Would Dundalk have mustered the energy to hold onto their shock second-half lead if this hadn't been their fifth game in 12 days?
What if Dane Massey had converted a header that struck the post just after Robbie Benson's opener?
How would the night have panned out if a Gabriel Sava miskick hadn't paved the way for a Zenit St Petersburg equaliser?
They are the regrets but the three points did go to the side that owned the ball for the majority and continued to introduce quality off the bench to retrieve the sticky situation created by a goalkeeping howler.
"The margins are very narrow," sighed Kenny. "We can take encouragement but, ultimately, we lost the game. We were so close to going 2-0 up so to go on and lose the game from that point. . . we were quite unfortunate.
"We feel deflated. But Zenit are a quality team, a Champions League team really, so to lose narrowly to them is no disgrace."
This was a testing night for the Russians as the League of Ireland champions again showed that they were comfortable in elite company and gave a sell-out crowd value for money.
And Sava's last-minute penalty stop avoided a scoreline that would have given the wrong impression of the encounter.
Despite the frustration of narrowly falling short of another European miracle, Maccabi Tel Aviv's win away to AZ Alkmaar means the Louth men remain second in the group.
"I can see this going to the last game in Tel Aviv," said Kenny, who will now look to wrap up a third domestic title on the trot against Bohemians on Sunday.
Getting that done early would allow his tired first-choice options to recharge ahead of a daunting task in St Petersburg on Thursday week.
He acknowledged that the battery power was low towards the end here, without wishing to cite it as a primary reason for the outcome.
Visiting boss Mircea Lucescu admitted afterwards that it took some of his players a while to realise they were in for a battle.
Kenny had joked beforehand that he would avoid operating a 'low block', an in-vogue phrase for when a team is pushed back to the extent where its wingers become defenders.
There were portions of this game where that was essentially the case, though, as a Russian side with 11 internationals stroked the ball around comfortably during the first half with Belgian star Axel Witsel - who dominated Ireland in the Euros - able to play within himself.
They were unable to penetrate when they advanced further forward, with Lucescu increasingly animated. In the first 45, there was only one moment where the opposition really cut through the home rearguard and it ended with a misdirected cross.
Otherwise, they didn't get much change from centre-halves Andy Boyle and Brian Gartland, with the midfield three of Chris Shields, Benson and Ronan Finn providing energetic support.
They also needed the legs to get forward to support David McMillan and, for all that the opening half was about Dundalk keeping their shape, they did have the best opportunity in the seventh minute when Finn outpaced Nicolas Lombaerts and fired a right-footer inches wide.
There were other half-chances too when Benson broke, while Daryl Horgan was kept relatively quiet, with set-pieces his only avenue to really come to the fore.
But from the restart, Zenit really should have gone ahead when they did breach the Dundalk line. Big man Artem Dyzuba produced the cliche-friendly good touch for a big man and slotted in Oleg Shatov, who passed the ball wide.
Those opportunities tend to create the fear that the big gun are about to step it up a notch. Instead, it was the catalyst for Dundalk to go to the other end and break the deadlock. Finn's persistence forced a Zenit error and McMillan nipped in for an attempted pass that clipped off Lombaerts into the path of Benson.
The UCD graduate strode forward and decided to buy a ticket for the lottery by attempting a left-footer; Russian keeper Yuri Lodykin was asleep at the till and allowed the swerving shot to fly over his legs and into the net. There was almost a half-second of stunned silence before the celebrations kicked in.
Zenit were rattled too. Unsurprisingly, they piled bodies forward, yet they were also frustrated by the situation, with three of their defenders picking up cautions for fouls as Dundalk temporarily embraced space on the break.
From one such situation, a Horgan free was headed off the post by Massey. That was a turning point.
It was inevitable that Zenit would continue to impose and they were able to call on Russia's starting striker from the summer, Aleksandr Kokorin, as an emergency sub. He had threatened before Zenit managed to level.
Unfortunately for Dundalk, the wound was self-inflicted as Sava skied a routine clearance and, when the ball landed, Zenit had a man over which they cleverly utilised, with Slovakia's Robert Mak calmly dispatching.
The topless Zenit fans in the East Stand finally had something to celebrate. Dundalk were just about to bring Ciaran Kilduff for the tiring McMillan so it was a punch in the stomach for Kenny.
That change went ahead and Zenit came back for more, withdrawing Javi Garcia for the more offensively minded Mauricio.
Yet it was a positive move from £25m-rated Witsel that settled the outcome.
He turned cleverly into the box and engineered a situation that created a tap-in for Giuliano.
Dundalk tried to summon up the energy for a comeback and it looked to be game over when Gartland felled another sub, Luka Djordevic, but Sava kept out Mauricio's tame spot-kick.
White shirts found a second wind and charged forward but the three minutes of added-time would not produce another twist.