5 years into their existence, the rise and rise of Dundalk's Champions League opponents

Vinny Perth’s men face Riga FC tomorrow.

Latvia international Olegs Laizans is captain of Riga.
Latvia international Olegs Laizans is captain of Riga.
Image: John Walton

DUNDALK HOST RIGA FC in the first leg of the Champions League’s first qualifying round on Wednesday night, and it’s fair to say the majority of Irish football fans won’t know much about the Latvian football outfit.

One notable difference between the sides is the number of players with international experience.

Andy Boyle is the only current player in Dundalk’s squad who has senior game time at international level, winning one cap for Ireland as a substitute in a friendly against Iceland in March 2017.

The majority of Riga’s squad are Latvian and they possess a number of experienced internationals in their ranks, including three of their midfielders: Aleksejs Višņakovs, Ritvars Rugins and club captain Oļegs Laizans, who alone have 152 caps between them.

Some of their foreign players too, such as centre-back Herdi Prenga (Albania), defensive midfielder Stefan Panić (Serbia) and attacker Davit Skhirtladze (Georgia), have also represented their national sides, albeit with two, one and four caps respectively.

The style and tempo of international football is far more akin to European football than a domestic competition such as the League of Ireland would be, which suggests Riga could have an edge on Dundalk in that regard.

However, in another sense, they lack experience. Whereas Dundalk FC were founded in 1903, having originally been a rugby club established in 1885, Riga have only been existence for five years, having been officially registered in April 2014. Their formation was a result of a merger between two relatively undistinguished sides, FC Caramba Riga and Dinamo Riga. Initially referred to as FC Caramba/Dinamo, after winning promotion from the second tier in the club’s first season, they changed their name to Riga FC.

The team, who normally line out with a 4-2-3-1 formation, have made relatively swift progress in the Latvian top tier. They finished fifth in their first season, before coming third a year later and winning in 2018, with Serbian striker Darko Lemajic finishing as the league’s top scorer with 15 goals from 24 matches. They completed the double when they overcame FK Ventspils 5-4 on penalties in the Latvian Cup, with the game finishing scoreless after extra-time, thereby emulating Dundalk, as the Irish side also completed a domestic double last season.

And unlike the Lilywhites, who still have many players in the squad that were regulars in the side during their 2016 run to the Europa League group stages, Riga have minimal European experience.

Their only previous occasion competing beyond domestic football was in the Europa League last season. In the first qualifying round, they came up against formidable opposition in the form of CSKA Sofia. The tie finished 1-1 on aggregate, after both teams won their respective home legs 1-0, before the Bulgarians prevailed 5-3 on penalties.

Nevertheless, Mihails Konevs’ men looked well equipped for this somewhat unfamiliar occasion. They play their home games at Skonto Stadium, which has a capacity of 9,500 and has also regularly hosted games involving the Latvia national team in the past. They moved there in 2016 after 15-time Virsliga champions Skonto FC dissolved due to bankruptcy.

And tomorrow’s visitors to Oriel Park come into the game on the back of decent overall form too. The Latvian top flight follows a similar schedule to the League of Ireland, with Riga currently top after 19 games, four points ahead of nearest challengers RFS. Lemajic is currently their top scorer with five goals.

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They have got off to a slow start for the second half of the season, however, drawing 0-0 with Valmieras and losing 1-0 to Jelgava in their last two matches.

Dundalk will be hoping their opponents’ difficult spell continues tomorrow, as they aim to repeat the heroics of that unforgettable 2016 campaign.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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