Dundalk 1 Zenit St Petersburg 2
In a town where they recalled for so many years one heroic European failure, this might easily be written off as another with Stephen Kenny’s side having fought then faded, led then lost against a powerful Zenit side.
Still second in this Europa League group table, though, the manager and his players will surely see it rather differently with another impressive display providing a signpost to the knockout stages even if the Irish champions are no further down the road.
Not for the first time they were slightly second best over the 90 minutes but as they had against both Maccabi and AZ they competed very much as equals and after Robbie Benson had given them the lead early in the second half they briefly threatened to secure a victory that would have eclipsed anything they had achieved so far. In the end, Zenit simply had too much much about them to allow it to happen.
As they have so often before, Dundalk showed themselves better equipped for life at this level than any Irish side with Ronan Finn, Pat McEleney and Benson, to name just three, showing a level of composure under pressure rarely ever displayed against opponents of anything like this quality.
Zenit certainly gave them the opportunity to play. Perhaps because they had come here believing they would win, they consistently allowed the Dundalk midfielders space in which to pick up the ball and everyone of them, including more defensively minded Shields, worked tremendously hard to make the most of the opportunity while also ensuring that life wasn’t nearly so easy for the visitors when they had the ball.
As has been the case against Maccabi, that was more often than not but here too it was Kenny's side who created by far the better of the scoring chances over the course of the opening hour with Finn having gone very close early on after being released by David McMillan and Dane Massey forcing Yuri Lodygin into a finger tip save with a looping header after McEleney's cross from the left had been partially cleared.
There were signs that the Russians might finally be getting on top towards the end of the first period but the locals steadied the ship for a spell after the break then stuned their opponents by taking a 53rd minute lead. Shatov really should have scored at one end moments before but after the goal kick Finn won possession well just inside the Zenit half and after McMillan's attempted pass out to the right clattered off the head Nicolas Lomaerts, the ball fell kindly to Benson whose low shot Lodygin made an utter mess of.
The visitors wasted no time, upping the pace and starting to exert considerably more pressure on their opponents but it was far from one way traffic with three of the Russian club’s players booked for fouls on McMillan, the second of which yielded a free-kick from which Horgan floated the ball in and Massey turned it against the post.
Had that gone in, it would have been hard to see Zenit saving themselves in but the tide had turned somewhat and where they had struggled to create anything much in the final third they were now beginning to base themselves around the edge of the area with Witsel starting to look more influential. The hosts brought the equaliser upon themselves with a badly sliced clearance Giuliano headed into the path of Robert Mak who powered it home.
The second had a real whiff of quality about it with the Russians working the ball across the pitch in front of an increasingly stretched looking defence before a swift change of pace and direction opened their opponents up. Witsel was at the heart of it, controlling the pace of things early on and popping up again on the edge of the six yard box to provide the final pass to Giuliano who provided a confident finish.
From there, even those amongst the home support feared that heads would go down and Zenit would add another one or two but remarkably Sava redeemed himself to some extent by saving a Mauricio penalty after Gartland had been penalised for bringing him down. Still in it, Dundalk promptly headed up field in search of an equaliser and the Russians had to scramble their way through to the final whistle.
They won in the end, and deserved to but even in defeat their hosts still took something almost as precious as the points out of the night.
After his side’s defeat Kenny said that while he was disappointed that his Dundalk side had been beaten in their latest Europa League group game, he felt there was “no disgrace” in losing to a side of Zenit’s quality
“We can take great encouragement from the game,” said the Dubliner, “but ultimately we lost and we can’t get away from that. The margins are very narrow. That’s the way it goes. But we were one nil up, we could have gone two nil up and we’ve lost the game.
“I thought for the first hour of the game we definitely had the better chances; we had three or four chances and after we scored we were so close to going two up with Dane Massey’s header hitting the inside of the post.
“The first goal was a bad one to give away, though. The second was a very good goal, they worked it very well. We got punished really but there’s no disgrace, I feel, in losing narrowly to Zenit they are a brilliant team.”
Dundalk: Sava; Gannon, Gartland, Boyle, Massey; Shields (Shiels, 86 mins), Finn; McEleney, Benson (Mountney, 78 mins), Horgan; McMillan (Kilduff, 71 mins).
Zenit: Lodygin; Anyukov, Neto, Lombaerts, Criscito; Mak (Djordjevic, 77 mins), Javi Garcia (Mauricio (71 mins), Witsel, Shatov (Kokorin, 61 mins); Giuliano, Dzyuba.
Referee: M Zelinka (Czech Republic).