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Thursday 8 December 2016

Dundalk to prove mettle in Europe

Dundalk’s Daryl Horgan. Pic: Sportsfile
Dundalk’s Daryl Horgan. Pic: Sportsfile

Rank outsiders before a ball was kicked at Euro 2016, Iceland's national team made a very good attempt to drown out the talk that they didn't belong on that stage.

And as Champions League action rolls around tonight, just days after Euro 2016 concluded, Dundalk have also warned of the dangers of writing off their Icelandic opponents in the battle to reach the third qualifying round.

It's widely acknowledged that the Co Louth club were handed the toughest draw possible at this stage of the competition 12 months ago when they were paired with Champions League regulars BATE Borisov, and some fans will have been relieved to see the name of Icelandic side FH come out of the draw drum.

Dundalk supporters with long memories will recall that one of the club's biggest wins in Europe came against Icelandic opposition, Fram Reykjavik (1981), winning 5-2 on aggregate (that Dundalk side would narrowly lose to the Ardiles/Villa/Hoddle era Tottenham in the next round).

But Hafnarfjardar, to give FH their full title, are a different proposition at a time when Icelandic football is at an all-time high following the national side's exploits in France.

"There was definitely no talk of this being a better draw, we are still playing the Icelandic champions, a side who have been in Europe for the last 14 seasons, a team who know how to play and win in Europe," says Dundalk winger Daryl Horgan ahead of the home leg tonight.

"BATE have been in the group stages a few times and were very experienced but you can't go into any game thinking 'this is the easier one' as you will be turned over. With every team in Europe now the gaps are so small, there's not that much of a difference and some of these teams in the second round will make the group stages. So we have to be right at it and be ready."

Feedback from Iceland suggests that the national side's success in France has enlivened the whole game there and breeds confidence for HF as they aim to become the first club side from Iceland to qualify.

But there's been no post-Euros boost for the domestic game here, not that Horgan expected one. "You can see how much of an Irish lift we got, it doesn't really filter into the league that much in that short space of time," he says.

"Shamrock Rovers were in the group stages a few years ago and there was never that drastic a change, they got good crowds for a year but then it filtered away.

"For us and for those who follow the league we want to do well, the manager has said that we are representing the league and Ireland in Europe's biggest competition so we want to do ourselves and the league justice.

"By all accounts, Icelandic football has been on the rise for a while anyway and is improving but from what we saw of Iceland at the Euros, I don't think this team will play like that. They are very expansive, technically very good, they like to hold onto the ball. Iceland at the Euros, while they were technically good, they didn't focus on dominating games, and this team have done that."

For Horgan, it's all about progression. "At the start of the year there was a lot of talk about Europe and pushing on, hopefully we can do that."

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