Dundalk Europa dream on hold
Dundalk 0 AZ Alkmaar 1
After three defeats in three games in November, the most recent last night's Europa League loss at home to AZ Alkmaar, Dundalk will gladly say goodbye to that month and push on into December, hoping that an almighty effort in the Holy Land can keep alive their dream of still being in Europe into 2017.
A scrappy first-half goal from the lankiest of lanky strikers, AZ forward Wout Weghorst, was the difference between the sides at a packed-out Tallaght Stadium, not quite Dutch gold but enough to win the game.
The Dundalk camp, unable to get the better of their Dutch opponents who needed to win in Dublin last night, will feel down today. Down but not out as progress to the last 32 of the Europa League is still there for Stephen Kenny's men.
With Zenit already through to the knock-out phase, the battle for second place in Group D is one of the tightest in the competition as Dundalk, AZ and Maccabi Tel Aviv each have a realistic chance.
Even a win for Dundalk in Israel next month may not be enough, should AZ win at home to Zenit, but Dundalk will need to put aside this loss and try to rediscover the pace and poise which made them such a threat to Maccabi, AZ and Zenit in their earlier games.
Dundalk were last night just not able to outwit an AZ outfit who are today relieved to be still in contetion.
For their last European battle, against a Zenit side who underlined their class earlier yesterday by winning their fifth straight game in the competition, fatigue was the problem as they struggled to deal with a crippling fixture list.
The issue against AZ last night seemed to be ring-rustiness, as they entered the field of play for the first time in 18 days, and perhaps the time off had somehow sapped away the very thing that had been keeping Dundalk going all that time.
In the opening exchanges, it looked like Dundalk were a side trying to get to grips with their season as they were unable to even get into the rhythm of the game.
It took AZ just nine minutes to get that key foothold in the gam, the first time in the competition that Dundalk have been behind so early. Some good goals have been scored against Kenny's men in Europe this season but AZ's goal last night was a pretty poor one to concede.
Mats Seuntjens swung in a ball which was sent more with hope than precision, and Dundalk did appear to have enough time to deal with the ball but Andy Boyle was beaten by the flight of the high ball, Dane Massey was unable to clear and the lanky striker Weghorst was left with a pretty easy finish in the end. Kenny's side did manage to regroup. with their spirit back on board, they enjoyed a good passage of play which, though not quite having AZ on the ropes, forced the away side to do some work.
On 27 minutes, Dundalk came up with their best passage of play in the game. Robbie Benson doing the hard work in central midfield to gift the ball to Daryl Horgan, and his first time flick sent Ciaran Kilduff bearing down on goal, so AZ needed defender Siijn Wuytens to clear the danger.
They pushed and pushed as Kilduff saw his header on 31 minutes sail just over the bar, Horgan the instigator of that chance with a well-struck free in. Then Ronan Finn, playing through the pain barrier to make himself available yet again, had a shot go just wide on 33 minutes, while Kildfuff was in space yet again six minutes before the break.
Dundalk's game plan suffered a blow before the half-time whistle was heard when captain Stephen O'Donnell was forced off due to injury.
With no goals to show for their good spell, Dundalk then had to endure a phase of AZ attacking play, keeper Gary Rogers making two good saves early in the second half to deny Weghorst, Ben Rienstra and Seuntjens.
Sub David McMillan tried to make a contribution off the bench but AZ, led at the back by Ron Vlaar, remained calm, Dundalk unable to prise them open.
At the end of the longest season in their history, Dundalk now need one more effort, one more 90 minutes and a win in Israel in two weeks' time, to stay alive in Europe and prove that miracles do happen.