Stephen Kenny relishing Dundalk’s date with destiny

Champions League group stages await victors of tie against Legia Warsaw

Some of the Dundalk players who will feature against Legia Warsaw this evening remember being among the Lansdowne Road crowd when Shelbourne took on Deportivo La Coruna for a place in the Champions League more than a decade ago.

That was quite a night for Irish football, but if the Dublin side’s heroic failure could make the impression it did on the club game’s potential here, Stephen Kenny’s men could be forgiven for being a little daunted by the thought of what might happen if they actually win.

Stephen O’Donnell, their captain, insisted yesterday that they will not be affected by the occasion, although their past two league results suggest they may already have been.

Legia, in any case, are under greater pressure and in poorer form so, despite the gap in European rankings, the home side know that after beating Bate Borisov they are in with a shout.

Co-efficient

“Bate’s co-efficient is a lot higher than Legia’s,” says Kenny.

“But that doesn’t mean one is stronger than the other. They have different qualities. Bate could keep the ball all day . . . Legia, on the other hand, have a lot of pace in their team, and power. They’re a powerful team. We’ve a different challenge, and it’s one we have to embrace.”

The Dundalk manager has Brian Gartland available again after a few weeks out with a broken wrist and the central defender seems set to start, but there are doubts about Ronan Finn and Pat McEleney, both of whom have groin strains. If the pair are both ruled out, then Robbie Benson looks sure to start behind David McMillan.

Passing up the few chances that come their way against decent European opposition has been the curse of even the better Irish sides down the years, but Kenny hopes McMillan’s form just now might prove key to his side’s chances of making the breakthrough.

“David is on an unprecedented run of goal scoring form,” he says. “Who’s to say that won’t continue? His variety of goals that he has been scoring has been terrific.”

Whatever way it goes for Dundalk in the end, the importance of the tie financially will comfortably eclipse all of those great European nights, even the one in 1979 that included the much-talked-about missed opportunity late on against Celtic. For Legia, though, it is pretty important too.

From its roots on the eastern front of the first World War when players drawn from the Polish Legion were brought together for training, the club developed into one of Poland’s biggest and most successful, coming into its own a decade after the second World War when the first of more than a dozen league titles was secured.

In 1970, the club reached the semi-finals of the old European Cup, and a couple of quarter-final appearances followed. They have been regulars in Uefa's club competitions since and featured in the Europa League group stages for the past two seasons. (They would have been in the Champions League for the first of those but for an administrative error that resulted in the use of a suspended player against Celtic.)

Double

Last year they won the double under Russian manager

Stanislav Cherchesov

, who was still replaced at the end of the campaign (he has since taken over his country’s national team) by Besnik Hasi, a former Albanian international who led

Anderlecht

to the Belgian title in one of his two years in charge.

In what is, sort of, the club's centenary, he has not had the best of starts. Early league results have been poor – just one win and three draws from five league games and a cup defeat to second division opposition last week. But they have, like Dundalk, come through two rounds in Europe to get this far

The 44-year-old Hasi will buy himself a fair bit of time in the event that he gets his team safely to the Champions League group stages for the first time since the mid-1990s.

They will certainly feel that they have the quality in their squad to handle Dundalk. They have a handful of internationals, including three – Michal Pazdan and Tomasz Jodlowiec of Poland as well as Hungary's Aleksandar Prijovic – who played at Euro 2016.

Hasi found himself last night trying to dampen the high expectations among the travelling press corps whose tone suggested the manager can expect rough treatment if this evening goes poorly.

“The moment that we drew Dundalk we were happy,” he said. “But I think that when they drew us, they will have been happy too. And any team that beats Bate 3-0 has earned my respect. It is dangerous to think we are better than them. We have to show it on the field.”

Not Juve or Milan

He added later: “We are also not Juve or Milan. If you want to win the game only on talent, I don’t think that we can do that. We have to show the character and the spirit too, The mentality has to be right always for Legia. We don’t have the players who can afford to do anything other than give 100 per cent.”

Dundalk might have to give the mythical 110, but after Bate who would bet against them?