GRITTY DUNDALK KEEP dream ALIVE
All to play for in Oriel as Lilywhites show battling spirit
THEIR supporters were happy but, as the players of the Dundalk filed through Minsk Airport last night before flying home from Belarus, the prevailing mood was one of disappointment.
Stephen Kenny's side will progress to the third round of the Champions League and guarantee themselves €1.2 million in prizemoney if they manage to score a 1-0 win over BATE Borisov in Oriel Park next Wednesday. Dave McMillan's away goal could prove invaluable.
But there was a feeling in the dressing room that they could have returned in an even healthier position after a lively affair in the state of the art Borisov Arena.
The sense of regret largely stemmed from a first half where Dundalk had more clearcut openings and still went in behind due to the sloppy concession of two goals.
Aleksandr Karnitski put the natives ahead with a tenth minute strike as BATE broke quickly following an error from Chris Shields. McMillan duly levelled in fortunate circumstances when a clearance rebounded off Daryl Horgan and sent the ball into his direction. But the winner was a fluke as a tame shot from Evgeni Yablonski was inadvertently turned past Gary Rogers by the luckless Shields.
What really frustrated Dundalk was their inability to convert other opportunities when BATE showed vulnerability under pressure. The Belarusians were surprised by Dundalk's quality, effectively admitting afterwards that they had underestimated them. McMillan missed a sitter before his leveller, and Dane Massey was denied by a terrific stop from Sergei Chernik.
After the resumption, Richie Towell misjudged a Massey cross from close range, a rare example of wastefulness from the star man. Dundalk were put under pressure from that point onwards, and a big effort saw it out.
"I felt in the first half it was pretty even, and we had the better chances probably," suggested Kenny, "BATE had three shots and two of them went in. We felt the scoreline at half-time wasn't reflective of the game.
"The second half was different. BATE were in the ascendency without having any real clearcut chances. We were on the back foot."
Central defenders Andy Boyle and Brian Gartland survived their respective ailments to play a part in that rearguard action. Boyle was only passed fit on the day of the match with a calf issue, while Gartland picked up a virus that kept him up through the night before the game. He nearly missed out.
Dundalk will be hoping for no such hiccups in what is sure to be a fevered build-up to the decider.
BATE will still travel as major favourites to progress, however, although they could face a nervous wait to find out if their leading light Vitali Rodionov is available. He headbutted Massey in the celebrations after Shields' own goal and the referee missed the incident.
The UEFA delegate is aware of the incident and there is video evidence, which means he could face retrospective punishment that would rule him out of Ireland.
"I couldn't believe it," said Massey, "He just leaned in and planted one on me. I was a bit stunned at first. He was cute enough though as he held my back so I couldn't go down.
"I put my hand up to my head and there was blood - he cut me.
"I was shouting over to the linesman to see if he'd seen it but he hadn't but I believe there might be video footage of it so we'll see."
That would be a major boost for Dundalk, and they are also exploring the possibility of installing temporary seating to allow 1,000 more supporters into Oriel. They would need the help of the FAI to secure special dispensation from UEFA. As it stands, the capacity will be restricted to just 3,200.
Kenny and his staff will get their heads down and concentrate on the football. "There's no doubt that a 2-1 defeat is a much better result for us than 1-0," he said, "We're not necessarily saying that the second game will be easier but we believe in the team, and what we're doing.
"It was a good effort from our players but the thing about our performance is that I still feel there is room for improvement. I'm coming home knowing that we can play better."