Dundalk looking to go out on a high in ‘a free hit’ against Arsenal

Gunners will play second-string side at the Aviva having already wrapped up Europa League group

Dundalk v Arsenal, Aviva stadium, Thursday, 5.55pm – Live on Virgin Media 2 and BT Sport 2

With the cup won, some of Dundalk’s focus appears to have shifted towards preparing for next season with new contracts for the existing management team sorted and Jim Magilton’s arrival as director of football next week finally confirmed.

Talks about new deals for the players not yet sorted have been more or less placed on hold, however, until Thursday's final Europa League group game is out of the way.

Shane Keegan agrees the visit of Arsenal is something of "a free hit" but even more than with Sunday's win over Shamrock Rovers, it will be difficult for everyone involved with the club to see the Aviva empty when what would presumably have been a full house should have ensured, almost regardless of the result, that the season ended on some sort of high.

Getting something from the game against the Londoners would still represent a great way to go out but after what has been a tough European campaign, nobody is under any illusions about the difficulty involved in that.

Arsenal have been struggling badly on the Premier League front with Mikel Arteta saying on Wednesday that there is a responsibility on everyone there to "make it happen on Sunday [at home to Burnley] and start winning football matches". But they have had too much quality for everyone else in this group which is reflected in the fact that they have very comfortably assured themselves of top spot already and their manager said at his pre-match press conference there had been too many players left behind in London to even name. Thomas Partey is injured, though, and will miss the club's next few games.

Nevertheless, the Dundalk players were talking in terms of what a pleasure it is, professionally, to be able to test themselves against opponents this good.

“Obviously it’s all just at a totally different level,” says David McMillan, whose hat-trick last weekend helped secure the cup. “You can sit at home, watch these games and be critical of the players but then you go out and play them and all of a sudden you see that these guys are pretty amazing.

“For us, it’s pretty amazing to get to go out and test ourselves against a team like this. Obviously, they’d be happier if they were further up the table but that doesn’t really make a difference to us; we’re still playing Arsenal, an unbelievable team and whatever team they play tomorrow evening is still going to be a great test, one we’ll enjoy.”

The home side could have Stefan Colovic back involved after the Serbian missed the cup final through injury but Seán Murray and Pat Hoban, both key figures in the earlier part of this European campaign are again absent.

Keegan says that there will be a cup related celebration afterwards one way or another but that the players are anxious to do themselves proud one last time before putting what has been a campaign of both notable highs and lows behind them.

In Europe, their performances have been tremendously spirited and they have outscored 10 other clubs in the group stages, something that over five games they might well have expected to have been rewarded with some sort of result. On a game by game basis, though, they have been second best with the defensive side of things repeatedly letting them down. And it will be a challenge to change against an Arsenal side, the “second string” nature of which only serves to highlight how ludicrous the gap in resources has become between the different leagues.

“Let’s be honest,” says Keegan, “it would have been a long and horrible week if we’d lost on Sunday. Everybody would want the season to wrap up. But when it does go in your favour, there are smiles on your faces and no talk of tiredness. They are running on momentum at this stage and everyone is looking forward to another crack at a super club.”