herald

Saturday 10 December 2016

No plane sailing for Irish champs

Dundalk players board their flight after a late departure for Saint Petersburg for their UEFA Europa game against Zenit St. Petersburg.
Dundalk players board their flight after a late departure for Saint Petersburg for their UEFA Europa game against Zenit St. Petersburg.

Dundalk will hope that the travel-related issues, which delayed their arrival here in Russia last night by six hours, will be the worst obstacle they encounter as they face up to the biggest test yet in their European adventure.

Because, as Dundalk defender Dane Massey admits, after those battles with not-too-shabby outfits like Hajduk Split, BATE Borisov, Legia Warsaw and Maccabi Tel Aviv over the last three years, Zenit are the toughest side they have faced on the European stage.

Zenit's are aiming to become the first club to secure progress to the last 32 of the Europa League by beating the League of Ireland champions tomorrow (6pm Irish time).

By booking a charter flight to Russia's second city, which flew out of Dublin yesterday, Dundalk had hoped for a stress-free trip to a chilly St Petersburg.

But their plane suffered technical problems en route and, after a longer than planned stopover in Sweden, it was close to midnight local time when the Dundalk squad reached their team hotel in St Petersburg last night.

Zenit go into the Dundalk game with an impressive home record in Europe (seven wins and a draw from their last nine home Euro ties, against sides like Valencia, AZ, Torino, PSV and Lyon).

So it's a big, big ask for Dundalk to get something here.

And yet. And yet this panel feel there is the potential to get something.

"We have a great opportunity to qualify out of the group, we believed that from day one," Dubliner Massey told The Herald before the squad landed in Russia.

"We are all in the same mind-set, to get out of the group and we have a great opportunity to do that.

"If you asked any of our players if they're surprised at the position we are in, we'd say no, we have worked hard to get into this position, we were well-prepared going into each game.

"We're then we move on to the next match, we have Maccabi and AZ to come and we still have an opportunity to get out of the group. But we have a game to play tomorrow," added Massey.

"It's a massive game for them, they are expecting a big crowd, win and they are through so it's key for us to have a go.

"It will be all about them on the night but if we can keep them quiet and take the opportunities we get, we will do well, we have to be patient and keep the ball for as long as we can. It's not easy with the crowd behind them and the weather, keeping warm is another challenge in itself but we look forward to it, we don't fear it."

Massey admired the likes of Legia but he's a fan of this Zenit side.

"I think they are the best side we have played in Europe," says the 28-year-old.

"They have international players all over the park, Witsel in the middle, Giuliano up front, Mak on the wing, all top-class players.

"Their ability to move the ball at a higher pace is frightening, really.

"It was great for us to go 1-0 up against them at home and then hit the post, I think we woke up a sleeping giant and they moved into another gear.

Mistake

"The first goal was a mistake by us, the second was a touch of class from Giuliano. But we have to be confident, we went toe to toe with them, we took the lead and it was a great experience.

"Giuliano was amazing to play against, world class, without a doubt. You look at him, he is small and you'd think you can knock him off the ball but he's so strong, as an ox, but it's not just him.

"The Zenit right full was class as well, he never stopped. Their keeper is an international, Javi Garcia is top-class too. We are out of the League of Ireland but we have nothing to be afraid of.

"We have gone toe-to-toe with the likes of BATE and Legia, who are littered with internationals. That experience drives us on to do it again."

Following their late arrival, Dundalk were able to rest up this morning ahead of tonight's training session at the 22,000 capacity stadium in St Petersburg.

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