Dundalk steeled for long and winding odyssey in Europe
Irish champions to face Zenit St Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv in Group D
FC Zenit’s Stadion Petrovski in St Petersburg. Photograph: Alexander Fedorov/EuroFootball/Getty Images
Dundalk face extra costs and a couple of particularly tough away trips after they were drawn in a Europa League group with Zenit St Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv, but the players seem undaunted with Daryl Horgan suggesting that they can “sneak through” to the knockout stages in second place.
“We’ve never played anyone on Zenit’s level. A club that can turn down an offer of €30 million for a player is on a different planet to us financially, but we’ve beaten teams on a par with AZ and Maccabi, so we would certainly be expecting to be competitive with them,” he says.
“We’re in a couple of difficult journeys and six very difficult games but we’ll relish it all and there’d be no point in even taking part if we didn’t think that we could go on and do something in the group. It will be exciting.”
Any talk about moving games from Tallaght Stadium to Lansdowne Road evaporated almost the instant Dundalk were drawn to complete Group D. Zenit, its top seeds and the second highest ranked club in the competition, have a squad packed with Russian internationals.
Perhaps the best known of their imports is Axel Witsel, the Belgian international who scored against Ireland in France and has, more recently, been coveted by Everton and Napoli.
The club won the Uefa League in 2008 and have won three Russian titles since.
AZ, the top ranked side in pot two, have also won the Uefa Cup in their day, although that was back in 1981. Still, they too, like Maccabi, have a strong squad, including a number of senior internationals.
Of the players that started for the clubs in the final round of qualifying on Thursday night, almost all are or have been senior internationals.
Only two of the Maccabi players had not represented their country at senior level, while AZ’s line up included players who have represented the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Trinidad and Tobago and Iran.
The Israeli side finished second in their league last season, two points off top spot, although they might be forgiven for feeling that they would have retained the title had they not been involved in a gruelling Champions League campaign that included games against Chelsea, Porto and Dynamo Kiev, all of which they lost.
That none of Dundalk’s rivals possess public appeal here is a disappointment but then given the scale of the guaranteed prize money, nobody at Oriel Park is complaining.
“We’re still in line for something like €6.2 million, so you’d have to be happy with that,” said Martin Connolly, Dundalk’s chairman.
“There are challenges logistically with getting people in and out of Russia and Israel and there will be added expense with two, maybe three, charters, plus an extra night’s accommodation on a couple of the trips because of the long flights, but we’ll cope with that. It’s all part of the challenge.”
Asked if he was disappointed that Dundalk’s opponents did not have an appeal to match their quality, with Zenit in particular possessing little of the drawing power in these parts of a Manchester United, Ajax or Inter, Connolly said: “Well, they’ve no fan club in Dundalk, that’s for sure but we want to progress and improve and they’ll certainly provide a great challenge for Stephen and his players.”
It won’t be the only challenge. Dundalk kick off with a trip to the Netherlands on September 15th but the Thursday evening time slot for the competition’s games is likely to necessitate further changes to their domestic schedule, making their league title defence all the more difficult.
Some clubs may be reluctant to move games and some games simply cannot be moved. The tie in St Petersburg, for instance, is just three days before the FAI Cup final, something that would present a huge problem in the event that Dundalk qualify for it.
Before that, though, there is work to be done to get Tallaght ready, tickets to be sold and games to be played in quick succession.
Getting this far is likely to have been the easy bit.
DUNDALK’S GROUP D FIXTURES
September 15th: AZ (a), (6.0pm Irish time)
September 29th: Maccabi (h) Tallaght Stadium 8.05pm
October 20th: Zenit (h) Tallaght Stadium 8.05pm
November 3rd: Zenit (a) (6.0pm Irish time, TBC on Tuesday)
November 24th: AZ (h) Tallaght Stadium 8.05pm
December 8th: Maccabi (a) , (6.0pm Irish time)
THE FULL DRAW:
Group A: Manchester United, Fenerbahce, Feyenoord, Zorya Luhansk
Group B: Olympiacos, Apoel Nicosia, Young Boys, Astana
Group C: Anderlecht, St Etienne, Mainz, Qabala
Group D: Zenit, AZ Alkmaar, Maccabi Tel Aviv, DUNDALK
Group E: Viktoria Plzen, Roma, Austria Vienna, Astra
Group F: Athletic Bilbao, Genk, Rapid Vienna, Sassulo
Group G: Ajax, Standard Liege, Celta Vigo, Panathinaikos
Group H: Shakhtar Donetsk, Braga, Gent, Konyaspor
Group I: Schalke, Salzburg, Krasnodar, Nice
Group J: Fiorentina, PAOK, Slovan Liberec, Qarabag,
Group K: Internazionale, Sparta Prague, Southampton, Hapoel Beer Sheva
Group L: Villarreal, Steaua Bucharest, Zurich, Osmanlispor