Dundalk return to Tallaght Stadium tonight to face Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League group stage with Stephen Kenny hoping for a repeat of their previous visit here when they battered Bate 3-0 last month.
Maccabi, like Dundalk, are top of their domestic league, and, in contrast to Dundalk, have a number of current international players representing Israel, Iceland, Serbia, and Bosnia in their squad.
They also have among their ranks two ex English Premier League players in Yossi Benayoun, formerly of Liverpool, West Ham and Chelsea, and defender Tal Ben Haim who used to ply his trade with Bolton and Chelsea.
Speaking at Tallaght Stadium yesterday afternoon, gaffer Kenny reaffirmed his faith in his team and urged them to make history tonight.
After becoming the first Irish team to win a point in the group stage of the competition with a 1-1 draw at AZ Alkmaar two weeks ago, they face a tough task tonight against a side who scored three times against Zenit St Petersburg in their last Europa outing.
In spite of the number of internationals in their opponents squad, Kenny said his men have no reason to be intimidated. He said:
“We’ve seen it in the European games, some of the players in some of the teams that we’ve played that are higher profile players can possibly weaken their teams sometimes.
“Sometimes teams are stronger without them. Macabi have some high profile players but maybe some of the lesser known players are better players. They’re at a stage in their career where they’re more of a threat to us.”
“I have great belief in the players that we have. Sometimes when you’re faced with players with higher profile names and internationals that are well known, you have to take all that out of the equation and look at what the opposition do. What are the strengths and weaknesses and forget about profiles. Look at what the strengths and weaknesses are and what our strengths and weaknesses are.
“In all of the games our possession stats, against teams who normally dominate possession, I don’t think we’ve been inferior in any of the statistics in any of the games bar BATE Borisov away. We got a little bit of a chasing in that match for a while.
“I would expect that we have to pass the ball really well and players have to express themselves in the way they can. That takes risks and you open yourself up to give goals away. If you’re not absolutely 100% accurate and you’re passing across the back four in our own half… But that’s the way I believe we should play.
“There’s a sort of train of thought going at the moment and many commentators have said that it’s in our DNA to play high up the pitch and play a more direct style of play. That it suits our psyche and our level of skill or lack of it.
“I can’t agree with that. I cannot tell you how strongly I don’t agree with that. I completely disagree. That’s the narrative and people believe that and they’re conditioned to believe in it. We go back and blame how kids are coached at U10 or something.
“It’s about having the ability to pass the ball, believing in yourself that you have the potential to.”
Dundalk came within a whisker of reaching the Champions League group stages, which would have seen them become the first Irish team ever to do so. The reigning Premier Division champions boast a lot of quality in their side, but will be without skipper Stephen O’Donnell through suspension.
“Stephen is a loss but no matter what player we’re missing it hasn’t really hindered us in the past. We’ve been OK, Stephen didn’t play in Poland [against Legia Warsaw] and we had an exceptional performance over there.
“So Chris Shields will come into the team you know he’s been very, very good. Excellent player. He’s been a big part of Dundalk for the past four seasons… He captained the team the year before I took over and he’s been very consistent.
“He’s been a big player on the big European nights. He played against BATE here, he played against Legia Warsaw, both matches. He’s played in a lot of the big games so I’ve no problem with that.”
Holding he lowest coefficient in the tournament may have lowered expectations in the eyes of their opposition, Kenny noted that should teams want to progress through the group they would have to pick up six points off the Louth side.
He’s told his players to rise to that challenge.
“I just said to the players last season we only played two games in Europe because we got knocked out by BATE Borisov, they were two great games but we were knocked out narrowly. But I just said to the players don’t take this European game as just another game, because they’re so use to playing other games.
“Never take the European games for granted. We’re living in a year when it’s a very exciting season for us and I think we want to grasp every opportunity that’s presented to us. We’ve got a big European game tonight and it should be viewed as that. Not just another game.
“We should be able to raise our game again for big victories… Football careers are short for players and big European nights, you can’t rely on them. I think you have to go, when you get the opportunity, to rise to the occasion and be the best you can be.”
The season will go down as the finest in the club’s history, but Kenny isn’t getting carried away with the results.
“We have but it would be foolish to suddenly think we’ve arrived. We can’t really think like that either. Apart from the player’s skill levels that have been really exceptional, we’ve got the results and the games have been as close as they have been because they’ve given everything in themselves.
“The minute we even for a moment do any less than that, we’ll be punished.”
Kick off tonight in Tallaght Stadium is 8.05 pm and the game is on live on eirSport1