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Saturday 18 August 2018

Kenny upbeat as Oriel gears up for latest Euro test

Europa League Dundalk v AEK Larnaca (Live, EirSport1, 7.45)

PREPARATION: Stephen Kenny with Pat Hoban. Pic: Sportsfile
PREPARATION: Stephen Kenny with Pat Hoban. Pic: Sportsfile

There was a time when a trip to Cyprus for a European game was, quite literally, a holiday for an Irish club.

For long spells in the history of League of Ireland clubs on the European stage, getting a draw with Cypriot opposition was practically a gimme into the next round.

Stephen Kenny, who this week marked the 20th anniversary of the first game of his managerial career with Longford Town, knows that's no longer the case.

Cypriot side AEK Larnaca stand between his Dundalk team and a place in the third round of the Europa League where they'd meet the losers of the Champions League tie between Ajax and Sturm Graz.

Three decades after Johann Cruyff took an Ajax side, featuring Frank Stapleton, to Oriel Park for a European Cup Winners Cup tie, the prospect of facing the mighty Dutch side is enticing.

But there's a job to be done first and Kenny is adamant that, whatever happened in the past, a side like Larnaca are a force to be reckoned with and will be a step above the Estonian side which Dundalk overcame in the last round.

"Levadia were a very good team, they proved that last week. But Larnaca have a European pedigree, they have players with a lot of appearances in La Liga so their pedigree is higher," says Kenny ahead of the home leg tonight of that Europa League tie.

"We respect Larnaca, they have had some great victories in Europe over the last few years; they beat Spartak Moscow and Dinamo Minsk.

"The tie is over two legs and we don't have to win anything tonight.

"The ruthless nature of European football is that if you lose you are out, We played an exceptional Rosenborg side last year but we are determined to do ourselves justice and enjoy the occasion."

Form

Pre-match form can be hard to assess on occasions like this.

Cork City hoped they could catch Legia Warsaw cold in the Champions League earlier this month as Cork were at full pelt while Legia had not yet played a competitive game. That Legia outfit are getting colder by the game as they lost the first leg of their second round Champions League tie, against Slovakian opposition, and their manager is facing the sack.

Dundalk are the form team as they are on a run of 15 straight wins in all competitions, while AEK are still in pre-season mode.

Kenny sent his coach Ruaidhri Higgins on a 'discover Poland' tour to see AEK in action in a pre-season tournament last week.

"Yeah, we had them watched, Ruaidhri Higgins went out when they had two games in Poland, they were both scoreless draws.

"We've not had a lot of video footage of them as they've not had a lot of games but there hasn't been radical change since last season," says Kenny.

"They had a very good European campaign last season, losing narrowly to Viktoria Plzen in the playoff round. We have been able to view those games and assess them."

Kenny is likely to rely heavily on the side which beat Levadia 3-1 on aggregate in the previous round, though Patrick McEleney, who was ineligible for that stage of the competition, comes into contention for the home leg tonight.

The 'sold out signs' were up a few days ago, a sense of expectation in the border town ahead of their latest European test, one that Kenny plans to enjoy.

"We're very proud to be Ireland's representatives in the Europa League, that's something the players are very aware of," the manager added.

"The players are ambitious, they want to do well. We take it seriously, when a European night comes to a town like Dundalk it lifts the town, it transcends football."

Stephen O'Donnell again misses out through injury. John Mountney is also absent for the Lilywhites.

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