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Dublin: 5 °C Thursday 12 December, 2019
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Fearless Dundalk eventually undone by Zenit after taking the lead

Robbie Benson had put the Louth club ahead before two second half goals for the visitors.

Benson celebrates his goal with Dundalk team-mates.
Benson celebrates his goal with Dundalk team-mates.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

Dundalk 1

Zenit St Petersburg 2

DUNDALK WERE HANDED their first loss of the Europa League group stages tonight — suffering a narrow 2-1 defeat to Russian giants Zenit St Petersburg in front of a full house at Tallaght Stadium.

It had been billed as a match-up worthy of David v Goliath comparisons, but there was no evident gulf in class as the SSE Airtricity League champions went in front through Robbie Benson just after half-time and held their own for the majority of the 90 minutes.

A goalkeeping mistake from Gabriel Sava allowed Zenit back into the game and Belgium star Axel Witsel carved the Lilywhites defence open for Giulano’s winner.

In the midst of a gruelling month of fixtures, the Louth club are attempting to break new ground by becoming the first Irish side to qualify for the competition’s knockout stages while closing in on their second consecutive league and FAI Cup double.

Manager Stephen Kenny claimed this week that his players were “exhausted” due to the fact they’ve effectively been playing three matches a week for some time, but there were no signs of fatigue during a disciplined first half.

The game was seven minutes old when David McMillan sent Benson away, and it needed a timely challenge from Portuguese centre-half Luís Neto to prevent him getting his shot off.

Midfielder Ronan Finn went one better moments later when the first touch of McMillan played him in. Leaving Belgium international Nicolas Lombaerts for dead in a 20-yard sprint, the ex-UCD man drove the ball inches wide of the far post with the best chance of the opening 45 minutes.

Zenit undoubtedly possess talent in abundance and their quality was there for all to see but while they enjoyed plenty of possession in the opposing half, they were restricted to a couple of speculative crosses.

Ronan Finn and Axel Witsel Axel Witsel and Ronan Finn. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

If Dundalk fans have been pinching themselves all season, what happened on 52 minutes will have had them seriously questioning whether they were dreaming.

Allowed space to run into, Benson let fly with a long-range strike that bounced in front of Yuri Lodygin and caught the Zenit goalkeeper out completely.

And they could quite easily have found themselves two goals ahead as Dane Massey’s header came back out off the post.

But the lead was short-lived and it was a goalkeeping error that brought the visitors level on 71 minutes. Sava, in for number one Gary Rogers after a number of below-par displays, failed to clear properly, allowing Róbert Mak to curl home.

With the wind now in their sails, the Russians went ahead as Witsel — who scored against Ireland for Belgium at Euro 2016 — teed up Brazilian attacker Giuliano for a simple finish.

Substitute Mauricio wasted the opportunity to make sure of the result from the penalty spot late on as Dundalk pushed bodies forward in search of an equaliser.

A first lost of the campaign but with Maccabi Tel Aviv beating AZ Alkmaar 2-1 in the group’s other game, Ireland’s sole representatives remain second on four points and very much in the running ahead of a trip to St Petersburg on 3 November.

DUNDALK: Sava; Gannon, Gartland, Boyle (c), Massey; Benson (Mountney 79), Finn, Shields (Shiels 86), Horgan, McEleney; McMillan (Kilduff 72).

ZENIT ST PETERSBURG: Lodygin; Anyukov, Neto, Lombaerts, Criscito; Shatov (Kokorin 61), Javi Garcia (Mauricio 71), Witsel, Mak (Djordjevic 78); Guiliano, Dzyuba.

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Ben Blake

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