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'We've come from nowhere and now we're on the verge of qualifying for the last-32'

Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny is expecting an ‘epic’ game with AZ Alkmaar in the Europa League tomorrow night.

Stephen Kenny speaking at Tallaght Stadium this afternoon.
Stephen Kenny speaking at Tallaght Stadium this afternoon.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

THE 2016 LEAGUE of Ireland season may have drawn to a close but Dundalk are preparing for the first of two hugely-significant Europa League matches.

Stephen Kenny’s men came through a gruelling few months of fixtures to wrap up a third consecutive Premier Division title before losing out to rivals Cork City in the FAI Cup final after an extra-time winner from Sean Maguire.

With the domestic matters put to one side, the Lilywhites’ full focus is now on getting the players right for Europe, where qualification to the knockout stages looks a real possibility.

Zenit St Petersburg are running away with Group D thanks to four wins from four, leaving Dundalk in a three-way battle with Maccabi Tel-Aviv — level on four points — and tomorrow’s opponents AZ Alkmaar, who are two points back.

The Dutch side are in Dublin ahead of the penultimate group match at Tallaght Stadium (8.05pm) and they will be smarting after the previous meeting back in September, which saw Ciaran Kilduff come off the bench to score an 89th-minute equaliser.

Speaking at his pre-match press conference, Kenny predicted an electric 90 minutes of football.

“I think it’s going to be an epic game tomorrow night,” he said. “AZ have a lot of physical strength and they are a really tall team with a lot of power and pace. They always play with four forwards and they’re very powerful.

“We’ll have a big test but I believe in the players that we have got and there is tremendous spirit as well as a fair degree of technical ability.”

Chris Shields shares a laugh with teammates The Dundalk players training at Tallaght Stadium today. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Last week marked four years since Kenny took over at the Louth club, who had narrowly avoided relegation to the First Division after seeing off Waterford United in a two-legged play-off.

It’s a far cry from their current situation and this team has already entered the history books on a couple of occasions this year, but a place in the last-32 would undoubtedly be the finest-ever achievement from an Irish club in European competition.

“This is a journey where we have come from nowhere, and we understand where we have come from,” Kenny added.

We had nothing and we have come from the bottom of our own league to win three-in-a-row and we’re now on the verge of qualifying for the last 32.

“We’re very determined to try achieve that, but AZ are standing in the way of our progress tomorrow. They would consider themselves much stronger opponents judging by the fact that they have been to the quarter-finals of the Europa League in their recent history.

“They will expect to beat us tomorrow night, but from our point of view we see them as our main opponents and if we get a victory we are in a great position so our motivation is huge.”

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Ben Blake

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