Benson back with a bang as Dundalk breathe new life into title race

Midfielder struck with nine minutes to go as Shamrock Rovers’ lead at the top is cut to five points, with a game in hand for the Lilywhites.

Robbie Benson celebrates his winning goal.
Robbie Benson celebrates his winning goal.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Dundalk 1
Shamrock Rovers 0

David Sneyd reports from Oriel Park

THE TOP TWO in the Premier Division were back after the mid-season break.

And Robbie Benson delivered with a bang for Dundalk to breathe new life into this title race with Shamrock Rovers.

His stunning 81st-minute side-footed volley cut the gap to five points and, with a game in hand, there is a sense that a real challenge can now be maintained in the second half of the season.

It’s now seven successive home wins for Dundalk, amassing 22 out of 24 points since losing to Rovers in Tallaght in April.

Their momentum is building and having grinded this out for the guts of 80 minutes they showed their ability to produce a killer moment of class.

A game that looked like labouring to a stalemate delivered a thrilling finale, Benson driving into the box to meet Lewis Macari’s stunning cross after some top-class centre forward build-up play by Patrick Hoban, whose chest control and cross field pass to the full back set the move in motion.

Now it looks like there’s no stopping them, and Rovers might just be throwing a few more ominous looks over their shoulder in the coming weeks.

A second yellow card for Ronan Finn only compounded the misery for the Hoops before the final whistle.

roberto-lopes-and-lee-grace-argue-with-patrick-hoban Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It didn’t take long for the cobwebs to be blown off here, although there still signs of ring rust following the two-week mid-season break.

Rory Gaffney blitzed Andy Boyle for pace down the right and maintained his composure on the run to loop a delightful cross to the back post, where Daniel Mandroiu had bust a gut down the opposite flank.

It was a tough opportunity to take first time and after a scuffed connection, the Dubliner had a second chance as the ball looped invitingly for an overhead kick.

The jeers from the home fans as his effort sailed harmlessly over the bar told you all you needed to know.

But the champions were now in the ascendancy and Mandroiu continued to mix his play up, running in behind and dropping deep to link play with the midfield.

He may have fluffed his lines in the box but that perseverance, and willingness to offer various outlets, would not have gone unnoticed by Ireland manager Stephen Kenny.

He was watching on in the main stand at Oriel Park, having included Mandroiu on his standby list for the recent Nations League games.

stephen-odonnell-gives-instructions-from-the-tv-gantry Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Two mins after that acrobatic effort, Richie Towell produced another for the visitors as he swiped his foot in the air from a more central position 12 yards out following some good work from Gary O’Neill who had weaved his way through a number of bodies before digging out a cross.

With Lilywhites boss Stephen O’Donnell serving a touchline ban – but issuing instructions from a TV gantry – his side were slow to play themselves into contention.

Mark Connolly directed a header just wide from a Steven Bradley free-kick and it was from another Greg Sloggett corner on the stroke of half-time that the Dundalk centre back got a near-post glance which somehow evaded everyone in the six-yard box.

Gaffney had tormented Andy Boyle earlier in the half, bullying him off the ball near the edge of the box and firing a shot wide, and he continued his powerful display straight after the re-start by chasing a ball down the right channel and cutting in to fire a shot into the side netting.

It was another warning and on 52 minutes the home side again threatened from a dead ball. Once more Connolly was the target man, this time meeting Darragh Leahy’s corner, and after a brief scramble the danger was cleared when Boyle almost prodded home.

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daniel-kelly-and-ronan-finn Ronan Finn holds off Daniel Kelly. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Set-pieces certainly caused the most concern for Rovers, although winger Daniel Kelly was becoming more prominent as the second-half wore on.

The SSE Airtricity/Soccer Writers’ Ireland player of the month for May had one goal-bound shot from the left deflected wide by Sean Hoare, and came close to capitalising on a mix up between Roberto Lopes and goalkeeper Alan Mannus only for the angle to tighten when he nipped in to steal possession.

The game was on a knife edge entering the final half hour and when Rovers sent on Chris McCann for Dylan Watts their thinking was clear: wrest back control in the middle of the pitch and see things out for a point.

Assistant Glen Cronin patrolled the touchline in place of boss Stephen Bradley, who was absent because of a family matter, and his opposite number Padge Cregg responded by replacing Paul Doyle with defender Sam Bone entering the final quarter.

But this game didn’t peter out as Hoban’s class, Macari’s precision and Benson’s finish combined for a dramatic finish.

DUNDALK: Sheppard; Macari, Connolly, Boyle, Leahy; Doyle (Bone 76), Sloggett; Bradley (Adams 85), Benson, Kelly; Hoban (c) (Martin 85).

Booked: Leahy 50, Hoban 66

SHAMROCK ROVERS: Mannus; Hoare, Lopes, Grace; Finn (c), Towell, O’Neill, Watts (McCann 65), Kavanagh; Mandroiu, Gaffney (Greene 82).

Booked: Finn 23

Referee: Paul Doyle (Dub).

Attendance: 3,409.

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