Zenit's Giuliano breaks Dundalk hearts again but qualification still within their grasp
Zenit 2 Dundalk 1
ONCE again, it was a case of so close but still far away for Dundalk as they went down 2-1 to Zenit St Petersburg on a cold and snowy night in Russia.
Brazilian international Giuliano was the match-winner for Zenit in their 2-1 defeat of Dundalk in Dublin last month and the classy attacker was the difference again in their second meeting, his 78th minute goal giving Zenit the win they needed to secure progress to the knock-out stage of the Europa League.
They needed that goal from Giuliano as a brilliant strike from Daryl Horgan seven minutes into the second half had seen Dundalk draw level, Zenit in front after a defensive error late in the first half.
But with group rivals Maccabi Tel Aviv and AZ Alkmaar playing out a 0-0 draw, progress as group runners-up is still there for Dundalk, Maccabi now just ahead of Dundalk, on goals scored, but the sides have to meet again in the final group game.
There was an early chance for Dundalk when John Mountney's cross on 13 minutes struck the crossbar, to the relief of Zenit keeper Mikhail Kerzhakov, but after that it was almost constant pressure from Zenit, the home side only kept scoreless by a series of blocks from Dane Massey, Brian Gartland and saves from Gary Rogers.
Dundalk gifted Zenit their goal just three minutes shy of the half-time break, as Gartland was caught in possession as he tried to play the ball out of defence, Aleksandr Kerzhakov won possession and played in Giuliano, the Brazilian international beating Rogers to put Zenit ahead.
The League of Ireland champions refused to wilt and, with a bit more steel in the side with the arrival of club captain Stephen O'Donnell off the bench for the second half, tried to get back into the game.
They did just that on 52 minutes when winger Daryl Horgan, called up to the senior Ireland squad only a day earlier, scored his first goal at European level. He pounced as Zenit hesitated, winning the ball on the half way line and sprinting through to slide his shot past Kerzkahov in the Zenit goal, the 50-strong band of Dundalk supporters behind that goal taken to new levels of joy.
Shocked by the concession of the goal, Zenit tried to regain the initiative and up the possession levels, and after another period of dominance, though not to the same extent as their first-half display, they took the lead again. The ball had pinged about the Dundalk box after a corner was not cleared, and Giuliano had the composure to stab the ball home.
Dundalk could have drawn level for a second time on the night as they struck the crossbar again, Patrick McEleney with that effort on 81 minutes after he'd been put clear by a stunning cross-field ball from Horgan.
ZENIT: M Kerzhakov, Anyukov, Neto, Lombaerts (Zhirkov, 88), Criscito; Witsel, Giuliano, Mauricio; Kokorin, A Kerzhakov (Djordjevic, 91, Shatov (Mak, 68).
DUNDALK: Rogers; Gannon, Boyle, Gartland, Massey; Shields; Horgan, Finn, McEleney (Shiels, 83), Mountney (O'Donnell, 46); McMillan (Kilduff, 65).
REFEREE: L Banti (Italy)