Dundalk pay the penalty as Legia lord it
Second-half goals do the job for Polish in tense European battle
Dundalk, a club who almost went under and out of football three years ago, now face the biggest footballing battle of their history in their bid to stay in the Champions League after a 2-0 loss at home to Legia Warsaw last night.
Dundalk fans can today look back and moan about the call early in the first half to award a penalty to the away side, a harsh decision on a soft night in Dublin 4 from the German referee who punished Andy Boyle for a handball in the box and awarded Legia the penalty which teed up the win and, barring a miracle, a place for the Poles in the group stages of the Champions League.
But there can be no expletive-laden rants threatening to quit the sport after last night's loss. Legia were of course fortunate to get their goal from the penalty spot after a clear, but still accidental, handball in the box from defender Boyle, and the Poles can thank German referee Deniz Aytekin for his touch of generosity.
But the better side won and an injury time goal from sub Aleksandar Prijovic was just another coat of gloss for the Poles.
Dundalk lived with Legia for almost an hour, were undone by a penalty, they tired late on were caught on the hop with that 93rd minute goal, leaving them with it all to do, an impossible task, treally, in Warsaw next Tuesday.
Though they were forced to move to this venue due to UEFA's strict demands on stadia for Champions League football, this was not a few field for Dundalk, with all of their players having played on the Dublin 4 turf before in Cup finals.
It was hardly a level playing field, though. Legia had nine - yes, nine - senior internationals in their starting XI, including three who played at Euro 2016. Dundalk's pool of international experience was a lot more shallow: one U21 cap, as a sub, for Daryl Horgan, a recent spell as cover in the Ireland senior squad for Gary Rogers, and a few underage caps, for the Republic before his subsequent switch to Northern Ireland, for Derry lad Patrick McEleney.
That gulf was not so evident on the pitch as Dundalk were more than capable of playing at this level. The back four looked composed, Stephen O'Donnell was bossing things in midfield, Daryl Horgan was making this a very tough night for his marker, Poland international Lukasz Broz. And McEleney was a joy to watch in midfield. Similar to the role Wes Hoolahan plays for Ireland, McEleney had to be patient at times in his bid to get on the ball, and not everything he tried worked out the way he intended.
But the ex-Derry City man was always eager to get on the ball and make things happen, like his superb ball into the box for Horgan on 39 minutes.
Because of the way he prepares his teams, there should have been no fear of stage fright for Stephen Kenny's players, and the side in white looked at ease from the off. An early warning of intent from Dundalk came from a second minute header by McEleney, set up by Mayo-born winger John Mountney, and on 10 minutes Legia keeper Arkadiusz Malarz was forced into a grasping save when he was almost deceived by the flight of a Horgan cross.
If Legia, desperate to end a 20-year wait for a place in the group stages of the Champions League, thought they'd have things their own way, that Dundalk display made sure it wasn't the case.
O'Donnell earned a booking - harsh, perhaps - for a foul on Vadis Odjidja, a Belgian international which will keep him out of the second leg but Dundalk were making the Poles know they were in for a fight.
The away side, wearing their away kit of lime green, had been less than impressive and reports from Warsaw indicated that TV commentators there used the half-time break to tear into Legia for that opening 45-minute display.
The second period had started well for Dundalk, but once Legia got in front with that 55th minute penalty, they were in control, the spot kick awarded after Boyle's hand struck off a shot from Langil, at the end of a very good move from Legia.
Rogers was needed on a couple of occasions, to deny Michal Kucharczyk and Jodlowiec, and the fear was that a revived Legia, freshly confident on the back of the their lead goal, could score again, which they did in added time, Prijovic on the break.
Dundalk have won away from home in Europe before but the task of winning in Warsaw next Tuesday now awaits.