Sunday 19 January 2020

Dundalk to rely on away form as Latvians hold on for scoreless stalemate

It will be tough to get through but we've done it before: Hoare

Dundalk’s Seán Hoare rises higher than Roman Debelko of Riga during their UEFA Champions League First Qualifying Round 1st leg match at Oriel Park, Dundalk last night.
Dundalk’s Seán Hoare rises higher than Roman Debelko of Riga during their UEFA Champions League First Qualifying Round 1st leg match at Oriel Park, Dundalk last night.

Progress to the next phase of the Champions League, and a daunting trip to either Albania or Azerbaijan, is still within touching distance for Dundalk despite a frustrating scoreless draw at home last night.

But the Co Louth club will have to hope that their remarkable record of scoring away from home in Europe can carry them through and make sure their stay in the Champions League, after a one-year absence, is a lengthy one.

And if they do lose out, they will wonder if this 0-0 draw at home to Riga FC was the one that got away, as they were unable to convert long spells of possession into viable chances capable of troubling keeper Roberts Ozols.

His opposite number, Gary Rogers, was also uninvolved for most of the game, Riga offering nothing more than a couple of shots from distance, though there was a late scare when Riga were awarded a free kick on the edge of the box deep into injury time, only for sub Deniss Rakels to waste the chance.

Dundalk can find the net on foreign soil, as they have scored at least once in 10 of their last 12 away ties in Europe, and the fact that they kept a clean sheet at home last night puts them in control, though progression to the next round is still a work in progress.

"It will be tough, it's always tough travelling and being expected to perform at the highest level but we've done it before. This group has done it lots of times so we'll settle down and prepare for the next leg," said Dundalk defender Sean Hoare, their man of the match.

Before the game, Dundalk coach Vinny Perth had warned against the expectation from home supporters that progress from this tie would be a simple process as the opposition were 'only' from Latvia, though the Latvian league is ranked just three places below the League of Ireland in terms of performances at UEFA level by their clubs.

And Riga had a big of weight behind them, three current Latvian internationals in their starting XI as well as Albanian international Herdi Prenga and the dangeous-looking Frenchman Joël Bopesu.

Dundalk found it hard to get within sight of goal, their best chances in the early stages coming from set pieces. On 21 minutes Sean Hoare had a free header as Michael Duffy sent in a corner but Hoare's chance went over the bar, but only just.

A minute later Hoare threatened again, Duffy's free kick nodded on by John Mountney and while Hoare did well to get in a shot, it was off target.

Riga were content to sit back for long spells but could pose a threat when the mood took them, wide man Bopesu a real danger, though he was on a yellow card from early on in this tie for pushing Sean Gannon in the face.

On 29 minutes a good move by the away side teed up an opportunity for Roger but the Brazilian wasted the chance and two minutes later Rogers had to pull off a save to make sure that a shot from Olegs Laizans, one of their Latvian internationals, stayed out.

Dundalk had Riga under pressure in the closing stages of the first half, three defenders needed to snuff out the danger from Pat Hoban after a good cross by Mountney, Hoban then with a header from a crisp pass by Jamie McGrath.

Dundalk's game plan was disrupted when Chris Shields and Daniel Cleary clashed heads shortly before the break, Shields unable to come back for the second half which offered Andy Boyle a chance off the bench.

With Boyle on the field, Perth shuffled his pack and moved Hoare into midfield. And after the arrival of sub Robbie Benson off the bench for the last half hour, Dundalk looking more of a threat with Benson in the side.

But for all their possession, they were unable to trouble keeper Ozols that much. Jamie McGrath came closest on 61 minutes, a well-worked move seeing McGrath go past three opponents and steal into the box, but his shot was straight at the keeper.

Bopesu should have done better for Riga when he had a chance on 76 minutes while at the other end, Dundalk pressed for that lead goal but nothing would fall for Hoban, who cut a frustrated figure, late efforts from Duffy and Hoare not enough to worry the Latvian keeper.

If Dundalk do come through this battle in Riga next week, they will play then the winners of the tie between Partizani Tirana and Qarabag, that one evenly-balanced after a 0-0 draw in Albania last night.

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