Dundalk looking for openings after drawing Larnaca blank
Stephen Kenny’s side head to Cyprus with ‘everything to play for’ next week
Dundalk’s Dylan Connolly and AEK Larnaca’s Thomas Ioannou battle for the ball during the Europa League second qualifying round, first leg match at Oriel Park. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Dundalk 0 AEK Larnaca 0
In the league here, they often cite the greater willingness of sides to come out and play against them in away games as a factor in their favour and while it’s not a logic you would want to bank on in European competition, Dundalk must hope the it somehow extends to next week’s game in Cyprus after failing to score against AEK in Oriel Park in the first leg of their Europa League tie on Thursday night.
Their growing desperation to find a way to make it happen was all too apparent through the closing stages as Pat McEleney was thrown on to add power and a bit more composure to the home side’s pursuit of a winner. They managed nothing much more than a couple of half chances, though, and lived dangerously at times as they threw bodies forward to create them.
“I think it a pretty even game but neither side created a clearcut chance,” acknowledged Stephen Kenny afterwards. “They had the one off a set piece but that was it really and we missed the target two or three times. Our midfield worked really hard but they can be more creative than that and we didn’t create too much. Larnaca are a good team, though, and it’s only half-time time in the tie so there’s still everything to play for.”
The pace of it all was a little frantic early on and though it was Dundalk who were working hard to set it, it was also the Irish side who seemed to take longer to adapt. The speed of Dylan Connolly on one side and the close control of Michael Duffy on the other provided them with the ability to cause their opponents problems and AEK never looked genuinely comfortable defending in or around their area.
The hosts had some tricky moments in the space in front of their own. The most ominous one came early on when Mikel Gonzalez put Ivan Trickovski in behind Seán Hoare but the attacking midfielder rushed his shot under pressure and failed to hit the target. Hoare, despite a decent performance in general would get himself into trouble again before the half was done but Dundalk began to exert a good deal of pressure themselves, often succeeding in forcing an opponent into an error in possession, then pouring forward towards goal from all directions.
Duffy should probably have scored from their first break of note; that or he should have slipped the ball to Pat Hoban inside him as the striker peeled away and into the area. The Derryman tried to curl the ball into the far corner, though, and while he came close enough to clip the outside of the foot of the post it felt like an important chance in a game like this.
Nothing much like it came the way of the 23-year-old again until the closing stages when he had a couple of more hurried attempts on goal. By then the Cypriots, who had shifted formation so as to play four at the back, had clearly become well aware of the danger he might pose, with full back Igor Silva and holding midfielder Larena Jorge working hard between them to limit his impact.
On the other side, Thomas Ioannou didn’t always fare so well against Connolly but the winger regularly gave himself too much to do or struggled with his final ball. And when he did produce one that severely unsettled Tono Ramirez’s defence the ball somehow seemed to wrong-foot Hoban too with the striker’s momentary delay allowing the AEK players to regroup and clear the danger.
It was open, entertaining stuff with enough action to keep the home support fully engaged but there were too many errors throughout for Dundalk to ever inspire real confidence they were going to win the tie and give themselves something to defend next Thursday.
Still, things could have been worse. Like their hosts, AEK found it difficult to find their range from distance. But when Daniel Cleary handed them a free 10 metres or so outside the area, they rolled out a set piece routine that caught Dundalk cold. Somehow, though, Apostolos Giannou couldn’t turn the ball beyond Gary Rogers after Joan Truyols had got well beyond the last defender and header Hector Hevel’s free almost perfectly into his path.
The Austrian referee booked Daniel Cleary for the challenge that led to that and managed to become the villain of the piece when he showed Hoban what he thought for a moment was a second yellow late on, only to realise his mistake and call him back.
Heading without Hoban into a game in which they will almost certainly have to score would have been a daunting prospect. Even with their prolific striker, though, Kenny and his men have their work cut out against a side who may well feel they have done the hardest part.
DUNDALK: Rogers; Hoare, Gartland, Cleary, Massey (Jarvis, 80 mins); Shields, Benson; Connolly (Murray, 84 mins), McGrath (McEleney, 67 mins), Duffy; Hoban.
AEK LARNACA: Ramirez; Silva, Truyols, Gonzalez, Ioannou; Jorge (Cases, 83 mins), Hevel; Acoran, Trickovski, Tomas (Tete, 62 mins); Giannou (Roushias, 90 mins).
Referee: H Lechner (Austria).