Maccabi Tel Aviv v Dundalk. Netanya Stadium, Thursday, 6pm. Live on EirSport 1 and ESPN
Their position might have been seriously undermined by the home defeat to AZ Alkmaar but Dundalk’s confidence seems undamaged as they prepare to take on Maccabi Tel Aviv at the Netanya Stadium. What other team would travel insisting that the need to score away goals essentially suits them?
Both Stephen Kenny and the team’s key creative influence, Daryl Horgan, maintain that a win is achievable. However, the fall-back position of a score draw and a more favourable result in Alkmaar is actually preferable to the scenario that most other teams would embrace: a need to head away, keep things tight and come home with a clean sheet. It is, you might say, not the Dundalk way.
Still, it might well be achievable against opponents who have lost their knack for scoring goals. Maccabi came to Dublin a few weeks ago off the back of a 5-0 defeat of city rivals Hapoel. The goal-scoring threat they posed featured heavily in Kenny’s pre-match assessment.
Having been beaten to nil in Tallaght, they have found the net in just three of 11 games since. They are, one might suggest in light of their location, suffering a drought of almost biblical proportions.
Their latest blank was drawn over the weekend against Hapoel Ashkelon, who are currently bottom of the league table. By way of making it sort of clear that any comparison is largely irrelevant, Kenny says they came and parked a bus.
The way Maccabi are playing, though, being able to do the same would surely seem attractive to most men in his position as the Israelis seem to be unable to hit the back of the net.
Still, the Dubliner says he is happy with the way things stand. “It’ll be difficult,” he says. “They are a
team, they have been in the competition a few times, with a lot of very good players and this is a very big game for them, one they are capable of raising their game for. But from our point of view it’s clearly defined: we have to go and try to win it and that’s our intention.
“I know a score draw might put us through, but if you end up hanging on for that, then a goal in Alkmaar or one for Maccabi here could end up putting us out. That’s not a situation you would want to put yourselves in; well, not unless word came through that Zenit were a couple of goals up in the closing stages.
“No, look, I know I’ve said this a few times but we’ve scored in every city that we’ve gone to over the last few years and we feel we have it in us to do it again. The 1-0 in Dublin didn’t flatter us in the slightest, we could have won by more. This might be harder again but we believe we can do it.”
If they do, then Horgan’s performance in what might well be his last game for the club prove a key factor. Like Andy Boyle, the winger seems set to leave for Championship side Preston North End in the new year, but the 24-year-old says a place in the Europa League’s last 32, rather than any impending transfer, is his priority just now.
“I suppose that’s the way it is at the end of every season,” he says when asked about the prospect of this being this group’s last game together. “That’s just the way football is, but I haven’t really been thinking about it. I just want to get through this game and see where we go from there.”
Horgan did well in the home tie but, like Kenny, accepts that things might be much tougher this evening.
“They will see this as a big opportunity; they are at home against what would have been deemed before the competition started to have been the weakest team but then that brings pressure too and they will be playing in front of an expectant crowd,” he said.
“In the home game, our shape was good and when we had the ball, we broke well at pace. We controlled a lot of the ball well. I think it was a good overall team effort with everyone, rather than just one player, playing well.
“And we try to play our game no matter where we are or who we are playing against. Some teams might change their style depending on where they are playing, but the manager just wants us to control the ball and score goals, even in games away from home and that’s key. I think that’s why we believe we have such a big chance now in this game.”
The rest which the team has had in recent weeks should help too as long as they are not rusty, which was one explanation put forward for their terrible start at home to AZ.
Chris Shields is fit again and Stephen O’Donnell comes into consideration having sprung “a surprise”, according to the manager, by taking part in training on Monday.
Dundalk getting through would be a bigger surprise than that to most people. This is not so for Kenny or his players, though, who will merely see it as another junction on this team’s amazing journey.
The only thing certain in this group is that Zenit, with 15 points, are already through. Currently second, AZ are sure to join the Russians in the knockout stages if they win but they will also progress if they draw and the other game is also drawn or they lose and the other game ends nil-all.
Dundalk will take second place if they win and AZ do not or if they manage a score draw in Tel Aviv and AZ lose.
However, Maccabi will sneak through ahead of both of them if they beat Dundalk and AZ fail to win at home to Zenit.