Gritty Dundalk keep European dream alive with valuable away goal
BATE Borisov (Belarus) Dundalk 1
DUNDALK kept their Champions League hopes alive by falling to a defeat by the narrowest margin against classy BATE Borisov.
The League of Ireland champions had reason to feel satisfied after a scoreless second half to set up a thriller in Oriel Park next Wednesday with €1.2 million at stake but they will be frustrated by the goals they conceded in a dramatic first half where they might have scored more than once.
BATE, a quality outfit who expect to qualify for the group stages again this term, will know more about Stephen Kenny's underdogs after this exercise.
But there was a mood of apprehension in the lavish Borisov Arena at full-time following a tie where this young Dundalk side showed they can mix it in this company.
The only sore point was that BATE didn't have to work hard for their goals. After 10 minutes, the natives showed ruthless efficiency to punish the first mistake from the visitors in their own half.
Chris Shields was the culprit, turning into trouble and sloppily giving the ball away. BATE seized the moment with experienced international striker Vitali Rodionov releasing Aleksandr Karnitski with a perfectly timed pass that was met with a right-footed strike of equal precision.
It was a punch in the stomach for Dundalk after a purposeful start from a selection which contained a few surprises. Ronan Finn lost out for the return of Shields to add solidity next to Stephen O'Donnell in midfield. John Mountney got the nod ahead of Darren Meenan on the right, essentially to curb the threat of BATE left-full Filip Mladenovic.
Andy Boyle was passed fit to partner Brian Gartland in the centre of defence, and the latter felt unwell on the day of the match which potentially made this a problem area. But they regrouped after the early concession and attention switched to the other half of the field.
Yet they were unable to take their first big chance when the overlapping Richie Towell collected a Stephen O'Donnell pass and swung in a cross that culminated with Dave McMillan blasting over an empty net after his initial header rebounded back in his direction.
But the horror miss galvanised the League of Ireland champions and they threatened again when Dane Massey's header from a Daryl Horgan corner was brilliantly saved.
When Towell and Horgan ran at the home rearguard, the hosts didn't enjoy it and the volume levels dropped as the border club started to ping the ball around.
They deserved the equaliser that came their way, even if it was created by an attempted BATE tackle on Horgan that sent the ball into the path of the grateful McMillan who calmly slotted the ball under Sergei Chernik to atone for his earlier error.
The travelling fans were in dreamland, a state which lasted for just five minutes.
This time, BATE enjoyed a fortunate deflection as a speculative effort from Evgeni Yablonski from outside the area came off Shields to wrong foot the helpless Gary Rogers.
It meant that the Irishmen started the second half playing catch-up, with the movement of the tidy Igor Stasevich and Mikhail Gordeichuk BATE's main threat in general play. They were angry too, accusing Rodionov of a headbutt on Massey immediately after the fortuitous goal.
Rodionov was furious with himself for an errant touch when through on goal in a period before the hour mark where Dundalk rode their luck at the back
Towell was also guilty of fluffing his lines from a Massey centre, but Dundalk's adventure was leaving gaps and a set piece arising from a break culminated with Rogers stopping a Nemanja Milunovic header.
As the clock ticked into the final quarter, Dundalk were in a position where 2-1 was an acceptable result with signs of fatigue creeping in after a serious effort.
Darren Meenan was sent in and then Finn who operated in an unfamiliar striking role in place of McMillan.
Timely interceptions from Seán Gannon and solid keeping from Rogers contributed to a tight ship as a number of walking wounded players got through the dying stages to open up a world of possibilities.