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Dublin: 7°C Saturday 27 February 2021

Molde's defensive issues give Dundalk glimmer of hope as unlikely European campaign begins

The Lilyhwites are back in the big time, in arguably their most improbable Europa League run yet.

Patrick McEleney at Dundalk training yesterday.
Patrick McEleney at Dundalk training yesterday.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IRISH CLUBS PLAYING in the Europa League group stages is by definition an improbable story, but this year’s third act is the most bewildering of them all.

The League of Ireland restarted at the end of the July but Dundalk didn’t, with a run of poor form culminating in exit from the Champions League qualifiers and the dismissal of Vinny Perth, scored to ambient whispers of creeping boardroom interference in team affairs. 

The club called for Filippo Giovagnoli, an unknown Italian academy coach whose last job was in New York, and who took over Dundalk without a Uefa Pro Licence and without even experience of coaching an adult side. 

And yet he and Dundalk have seen off the champions of Andorra, Moldova and the Faroe Islands to qualify for the Europa League group stages for the second time, four years on from Stephen Kenny’s famous sojourn.

This draw was admittedly kind to Dundalk, and the group stage draw has been relatively friendly too. While Arsenal are the top-ranked side in the competition, the European Club Index rates Rapid Vienna as the second-weakest side among the second seeds and Molde as the weakest in pot three. Dundalk, mind, are ranked by some distance the weakest in pot four, placed 368 overall. The next-closest are Omonia Nicosia, in 191st place. 

Dundalk are just the second Irish club to get this far and are the first to do it twice, following Shamrock Rovers under Michael O’Neill in 2011. 

O’Neill and Kenny’s next jobs were with their national teams, though following that path is a feat too improbable even form Giovagnoli. In his pre-game press conference, he played down the fact these games might even elevate his name in his homeland. 

“That is not my objective. My objective is to do well with the team. I never think about one individual, especially not me. This is about everyone, the club, the town.”

Dundalk may effectively be in bonus territory now. This qualification will plug most of the gaps Covid has blown in their finances, and they have guaranteed themselves €3 million in just getting this far. Points mean prize money too: each win is worth €570,000, while a draw pays €190,000. 

With Shamrock Rovers out of sight at the top of the league when he arrived, Giovagnoli prioritised Europe, but since qualification for the group stages, the emphasis has shifted back to the league and securing European football next season.

To that end, Monday’s 2-1 win away to Derry was well-timed, as it puts them clear in third place and avoids some difficult selection conundrums between tonight and Sunday’s game with Waterford. 

dundalk-celebrate-winning Dundalk celebrate qualification after the Europa League play-off win at the Aviva Stadium. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Molde are in a similar situation to Dundalk, in the sense their title defence has faltered badly and their primary objective is now to make sure they play in Europe next year. And, again like Dundalk, their most recent result was a good one, a 4-2 win against league leaders Bodo/Glimt, whom they trail by 12 points in the league. 

Prior to that they beat SK Brann – who were knocked out of Europe by Rovers last year – but lost their previous two games, having been knocked out of the Champions League by Ferencvaros of Hungary. 

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The manager is Erling Moe, who took permanent charge after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took on his own kamikaze mission at Manchester United. 

Molde’s system is broadly 4-2-3-1, with their key player the attacking midfielder Magnus Wolff Eikrem. 

Eikrem came through the youth ranks at Manchester United though never made a senior appearance beyond a friendly with Dunfermline, and returned to Britain in 2014 for a brief and underwhelming period under Solskjaer at Cardiff. 

Chris Shields, returning from the suspension that saw him miss the play-off win against KI, will be tasked with denying Eikrem space. “Scoring from midfield is a strength pod although they do score a lot of goals from pretty much everywhere . The full backs even have goals. I’ll be coming up against their goalscoring number eight and it will my job to stop him.”

Striker Leke James looks set to miss out through injury but Shields is right: Molde are an attack-minded team, and will push both full-backs forward.

Dundalk are now much more conservative than they were under Kenny and so will likely play on the counter attack tonight, and Molde’s wobbling defence gives them a glimmer of hope, as they have conceded 14 goals across their last nine games. 

Dundalk also have fewer injury issues than Molde, with Dane Massey the only significant absentee, though there are doubts over the availability of Daniel Kelly and Nathan Oduwa. 

The Irish Rugby team’s booking of the Aviva Stadium means this game has been moved to Tallaght, much to the annoyance of the Dundalk chairman Bill Hulsizer, who briefly threatened to take their games to Windsor Park in agitated response. Uefa quickly vetoed that, and so Dundalk will kick off their 2020 Europa League group campaign at the venue they played their home games in 2016. 

It’s largely the same group of players as four years ago for Dundalk, so the obvious change to the cast is on the touchline. 

“Sometimes when you start a mission, it’s kamikaze then you jump into the dream and that becomes a normality”, says Giovagnoli.

“Now this is our normality and we have to perform on this stage.” 

Dundalk (Possible XI): Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland, Daniel Cleary, Darragh Leahy; Chris Shields, Sean Murray, Greg Sloggett; Stefan Colovic, Pat Hoban, Michael Duffy 

On TV: Virgin Media Two; KO: 5.55pm

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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