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Saturday 3 December 2016

Cheap goals cost Dundalk

Europa League Group D: Dundalk 1 Zenit St Petersburg 2

Dundalk's Robbie Benson (left) celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game with team-mate Daryl Horgan. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Dundalk's Robbie Benson (left) celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game with team-mate Daryl Horgan. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

How do you rattle a side worth €150 million who are managed by one of the most experienced coaches on the planet? Put them up against Dundalk and see how they cope.

Zenit St Petersburg flew home to Russia last night with another three points from their Europa League campaign safely banked away, Mircea Lucescu's side can surely progress to the knock-out stages.

But for a spell last night at Tallaght Stadium, Dundalk dreamed, leading for almost 20 minutes thanks to a goal from Robbie Benson, while Zenit's travelling party dreaded the fate that would await them if they arrived home with a defeat to an Irish club.

Dundalk were undone by two goals in the space of six minutes, internationals Robert Mak and Giuliano with the strikes for Zenit, though an injury-time penalty save by Gabriel Sava held Zenit to that win by a one-goal margin, redemption of sorts for the Italian/Romanian keeper whose error had gifted the Russians their equalising goal, but this was a night when Brazilian star Giuliano starred.

This ambitious Dundalk side hate the Irish habit of pulling moral victories out of defeats, and there will be genuine hurt in their camp that they didn't get at least a point, a stance the watching Roy Keane would agree with. But with four points from three games, Dundalk are still ahead of AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv, and a win at home to AZ in their next game could push Dundalk towards the knock-out stages.

Dundalk have had big nights in their European run this year but this, the visit of Zenit to Ireland, was something special. Dundalk's previous Europa League opponents, AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviva, had a fair sprinkling of international players in their teams.

Sprinkling

Zenit didn't have a sprinkling, they had a downpour, 11 senior internationals in the starting XI alone, and a few more on the bench, a bench patrolled by the veteran Romanian coach Lucescu.

The 71-year-old Zenit boss has done just about everything in the game and, to put things in context, he had already managed Romania's national team and three top Italian clubs before Dubliner Kenny had his first job in management.

And yet a rattled Lucescu will have been puzzled at half time as his side went into the break without the foothold which they are so used to enjoying with the half-time drink.

It says a lot about Dundalk's efforts that the home side had more clear-cut chances in that first 45 minutes than Zenit, a side who had scored at least once in their previous 11 games in all competitions.

So often in games against big European opposition, the task for the Irish challengers is to, somehow, surive until half-time without conceding a goal, but Sava's goal was not really threatened in the first 45 minutes.

Deserved

In fact, it was Dundalk who deserved to go into the lead as they had the best chance of those opening stages from Ronan Finn in the fifth minute.

The move which created the chance was Dutch in its appearance but Irish in its execution. Brian Gartland played the ball out to Sean Gannon, the right back needed no extra touch to control the ball, played it in for David McMillan who flicked on a pass for Finn.

The former UCD man sprinted past the sluggish Belgian international Nicolas Lombaerts and bore down on goal, only for his shot to go just wide.

Zenit's only real response was a poor effort from Brazilian international Giuliano and the night was not going to plan for Zenit, who had two players booked in the first half alone (three more yellows followed after the break for a frustrated Zenit side), and no real chances to show for their efforts, though the fear was always there that players like Witsel, so experienced on the big stages with club and country, could step up and impose himself on the game.

Zenit fired another warning sign six minutes after the restart, Oleg Shatov in space down the right and his cross into the box was dangerous but the chance fell away.

Dundalk took their chance, through Benson, on 52 minutes. The Zenit defence was asleep as a loose ball from McMillan fell into Benson's path and keeper Yuri Lodygin was awful as he was beaten by the bounce from the Athlone man's shot.

Incredibly, Dundalk almost doubled the lead in the 62nd minute, Dane Massey's header coming off the woodwork, but in the last 20 minutes Zenit did what they'd failed to do for the first 70 minutes and moved up a gear.

Pity

It's a pity that the first wound for Dundalk was self-inflicted, a mix-up at the back handing Zenit their equaliser.

A poor back pass to Sava from Chris Shields was met with an even poorer clearance from the keeper, Giuliano took control, opened up Dundalk and Robert Mak was there to finish.

Zenit's second goal was an illustration of their international class and what they are capable of, when they play.

Witsel and Giuliano, players who cost the club a combined fee of €40m, worked their magic - one-twos between the pair and fine finish from Brazilian international Giuliano.

Sub Mauricio could have punished Dundalk again from the penalty spot but Sava's save denied him.

Dundalk denied a result but they had made a point on an uneven playing field

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