Dundalk physios 'working over-time' as Russian giants arrive for sold-out European clash

Zenit St Petersburg visit Tallaght Stadium tonight in another David v Goliath match-up for the Lilywhites.

The Dundalk manager chats to his players during their final training session at Tallaght Stadium.
The Dundalk manager chats to his players during their final training session at Tallaght Stadium.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

DUNDALK ARE ARGUABLY facing into their toughest European fixture to-date this evening (8.05pm kick-off), but they have barely had time to think about it.

Zenit St Petersburg, backed by Russian energy giants Gazprom and winners of the competition as recently as 2008, were top seeds when the Europa League group stage draw was made in September and are likely to prove formidable opponents.

They’ve lived up to their reputation with maximum points from the opening two matches and come into tonight’s meeting in front of a sell-out crowd at the 6,000-seater Tallaght Stadium unbeaten in 14 competitive games this season.

Two points back in second after a draw with AZ Alkmaar was followed up by the historic 1-0 victory over Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Lilywhites have managed to successfully balance their maiden voyage in the group stages with domestic obligations.

Monday’s victory over Longford Town coupled with defeat for Cork City means Dundalk have taken a major step in securing a third successive league title by opening up a seven-point gap.

But challenging on numerous fronts and effectively playing three fixtures a week has taken its toll on tired bodies.

Injuries are mounting and captain Stephen O’Donnell has been ruled out, while John Mountney is struggling with a back injury and Chris Shields has been suffering from a groin problem.

“We have four or five who are on the doubtful list at the moment and we’ll have to see how they are tomorrow,” said Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny at yesterday’s press conference in Dublin.

“Everyone is anxious to play and it’s a great night for Irish football. All the players are very keen to play, but several will be absent from training today. That’s the reality of where we are.

“Our physios, Fearghal Kerin and Sam Rice, are working over-time on the group at the moment with the run of games that we’ve had. They’re doing tremendous work.

“We were delighted to get nine points in the last three games over the six days. That was a terrific boost for us and hopefully we can take some confidence from that into tomorrow’s game.”

Stephen Kenny Kenny speaking at yesterday's pre-match press conference. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Having made it clear that retaining the Premier Division title was his main priority, Kenny hinted last week that he could rest a couple of first team regulars against Zenit with league outings against Bohemians (Sunday) and St Patrick’s Athletic (Tuesday) to come.

But when asked about it yesterday, he said he’s decided against such a plan.

“No, it certainly isn’t in my thinking at the moment,” replied Kenny. “We’re in a good position with four points from the two games.

It’s great for us to be playing in the Europa League and we’re very privileged to be at this level. It’s unprecedented for an Irish team to be in such a position at this stage of the season.

“We know Zenit St Petersburg have a great tradition — they’ve won the competition and they have a great history in Europe.

“We haven’t got a history at this level, but we’re certainly looking forward to it. It’s a great occasion for us.”

Russia Soccer Europa League Zenit's Axel Witsel goes past Ben Rienstra of AZ Alkmaar. Source: Dmitri Lovetsky

With an annual budget of €165 million — compared to Dundalk’s €1m — five-time Russian champions Zenit are worlds ahead it comes to the financial resources.

Managed by the vastly-experienced Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu, who had spells with Inter Milan and Galatasaray before spending 12 years at Shakhtar Donetsk, their squad is littered with international talent.

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While they may have lost the likes of Hulk and Ezequiel Garay in recent times, Zenit boast the likes of captain Danny, Belgian pair Axel Witsel and Nicolas Lombaerts, ex-Manchester City midfielder Javi Garcia, summer signing Giuliano, Italian full-back Domenico Criscito, Russian internationals Aleksandr Kokorin and Artyom Dzyuba and Slovakian schemer Robert Mak.

But does Kenny expect them to be strongest team he has ever faced as Dundalk boss?

“It’s quite possible that they are. They have been in the Champions League a lot, but then so have some of the other teams that we’ve played — Maccabi Tel-Aviv and BATE Borisov have been in it regularly over the last number of years.

Zenit have won this competition, which I’m sure is a stand-out moment in their history. We respect that.

“For us, it’s been an amazing journey over the last couple of seasons and particularly this year. The players are relishing every moment.

“These are the games they want to play in but they haven’t been able to focus on them because the league matches have been coming thick and fast.

“But now that we’re here, I’m sure the crowd will energise the players and they will be very positive and approach the game with great confidence.”

– First published 07.15

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Ben Blake

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