Tuesday 15 October 2019

Hoban's header keeps Dundalk dreams still alive

Irish champions fight back to deny Qarabag away win

Dundalk’s Patrick Hoban of celebrates after scoring his side’s equaliser at Oriel Park last night
Dundalk’s Patrick Hoban of celebrates after scoring his side’s equaliser at Oriel Park last night

The natives rose to their feet at full-time, the mood a dramatic contrast from the half-time feelings of apprehension.

During this golden era for Dundalk, the better European memories have been created at venues other than Oriel Park.

And for a good portion of this Champions League qualifier, it looked as though that trend was set to continue.

But this game was a tale of two corners, with an early Qarabag effort arising from a Dundalk error cancelled out by a 77th minute Patrick Hoban equaliser that followed the League of Ireland champions best passage of play.

They will make a 5,000km journey across Europe next week knowing they will still have to produce a performance to rival their very best to stay in this competition.

Yet the belief levels ahead of their mammoth trek to Azerbaijan will have been enhanced by their strong finish to an evening which was a struggle for long periods.

Vinny Perth's team came up against an opponent that is several notches up the ladder from Riga. The key factor for Dundalk was staying in the tie while they endeavoured to get up to speed.

Character was required to survive choppy spells against the group stage regulars. Perth will be proud of how his team responded, and they actually could have nicked the win in stoppage time with Dane Massey and Michael Duffy agonisingly close.

It was some turnaround.

In Dundalk circles, they always talk about the chasing they suffered in Belarus back in 2016, a week before the famous win over BATE in Tallaght that changed the course of recent history.

They endured the same experience on their own patch in the first half last night. Qarabag's CV suggested they would be pretty good and the bizarre silence that hung over Oriel for most of the opening 45 could be interpreted as the draining of belief. Dundalk simply aren't used to this.

It didn't help that they gave Qarabag a head start with a comical concession inside just five minutes, a goal that said a lot about the story of the first half. In contrast to Latvian champions Riga, who were content for Dundalk to have the ball for long periods, Qarabag immediately sent bodies into the opposition half in order to pressurise the home rearguard.

Seán Hoare gave away a corner in an attempt to hit a backpass to Gary Rogers with the black shirts forcing a snap decision that he got badly wrong. Rogers was breaking the record for League of Ireland appearances in Europe, yet the landmark occasion kicked off in disastrous fashion as he was caught flat-footed by the subsequent corner with Mahir Emreli's header deflecting off Hoban on its way into the net.

The atmosphere was punctured, with the slow motion concession leaving the sell-out crowd shell-shocked. And the mood darkened with the distraught Robbie Benson was forced off through injury, just a few short weeks after his full return from a long-term absence.

Dundalk couldn't get any momentum going, with the visitors alert to any attacking movement even though there were signs they weren't in love with the artificial surface.

However, it was Vinny Perth's charges that were experiencing serious discomfort and they were fortunate to be just a goal behind at the break - they weren't giving the watching Mick McCarthy much food for thought.

The mesmerising skills of Frenchman Abdellah Zoubir was Qarabag's main threat. He squandered one opening following a solo run, and also played a through ball to release Spaniard Jaime Romero but Rogers burst out to make a vital stop. Dundalk were especially vulnerable down their left side, and Perth faced a serious half-time challenge to rally the troops.

They shored up the gaps and began to impose on their guests. Patrick McEleney was involved in half chances and it was a surprise when Perth replaced him with John Mountney in order to move Jamie McGrath inside

The switch paid off with Mountney and McGrath involved in the move that won a corner that was sent into the box by Seán Murray and nodded home by Hoban after a chaotic scramble - the skipper's first goal in the Champions League.

If Qarabag felt hard done by at that juncture, their emotions soon changed. Dundalk suddenly looked like the home side and McGrath, Massey and the busy Duffy were crisper touches away from an unlikely victory.

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