Dundalk v AEK Larnaca, Oriel Park, 7.45pm (live on Eir Sport)
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny is hoping that hours of extensive homework will pay off when the Lilywhites host AEK Larnaca in their Europa League second qualifying round first-leg tie at Oriel Park this evening.
The Cypriots ended Cork City's European campaign last year but Kenny, along with first-team coach Vinny Perth and opposition analyst Ruaidhri Higgins, has been burning the midnight oil in a bid to overcome a side peppered with experience.
“The level of detail for European games is huge,” he said. “Myself, Vinny and Ruaidhri were all on the phone the other night to 12 o’clock watching different matches,” he said.
“Ruaidhri was also in Poland two weeks ago to watch them. He had to get two flights and a train to watch a training match with AEK Athens behind closed doors. Tactically, European games challenge you.”
Kenny feels the general public underestimate the heights a League of Ireland club must try and scale to progress in European competition, pointing to the criticism Dundalk received in the wake of their league game with Sligo Rovers being called off last weekend to help them prepare for this evening’s fixture.
“People say ‘why the hell would you cancel a game in Sligo at the weekend. Sure you can easily play Thursday and Sunday. What’s the problems with that?’
“But, unless you’re involved and understand the level of preparation that’s needed you don’t know. It can reduce your chances of winning in half if you play on a Sunday. It’s not just about recovering and playing,” he continued. “It’s about the work you do. We’re trying to beat teams ranked miles above us.
“Larnaca didn’t have to play in the first round. They qualified automatically for the second round and we’re playing against players who are current internationals and who have played in La Liga.
“We wouldn’t have beaten BATE Borisov two years ago if we didn’t have a week to prepare, along with the match off in between the first and second leg. Absolutely no way.”
Former Spanish international defender Andoni Iraola will take charge of AEK for the first time this evening but will have to plan without a number of key players in key areas. His new team's last competitive game was the Cypriot Cup final back in May but Kenny knows AEK will still carry a serious threat.
"They have signed players who have had a lot of appearances in La Liga. Jorge Larena has had 100 appearances for Atletico Madrid and Ivan Trickovski has had a good career for Macedonia.
"The centre back who is missing – their captain, David Catala – is more of a footballer than the player they have signed from Zaragoza, Mikel Gonzalez, who is a more orthodox central defender.
"The centre forwards are similar in style, but the difference obviously is the goal ratio. The one who played last year – Florian Taulemesse – got 26 goals in 32 games. Apostolos Giannou who has come in has not played a lot of games but he looks a good player.
“They have a lot of quality but we just need to focus on playing well ourselves. We cannot get hung up on every external factor. We obviously know what their strengths are. They have good players. But so have we.”