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Dublin: 5°C Saturday 16 January 2021

Dundalk set for penultimate Europa League test but Sunday's FAI Cup final takes precedence

The Lilywhites are in Norway to face Molde this evening.

The Dundalk team in a huddle prior to their Europa League game against Molde at Tallaght Stadium in October.
The Dundalk team in a huddle prior to their Europa League game against Molde at Tallaght Stadium in October.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

BEGINNING THIS EVENING, Dundalk head into a hectic 72-hour period that presents the club with two opportunities to enhance their report card for the 2020 season.

The Lilywhites are in Norway for their penultimate Europa League game, in which they’ll be hosted by Molde at the Aker Stadion (8pm, Virgin Media Two/Sport).

It’ll then be a very quick turnaround as attention turns towards a sixth consecutive FAI Cup final appearance. Regaining the silverware, while denying Shamrock Rovers the double, is the aim at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.

Reaching the group stages of the Europa League for the second time in five seasons has been a lucrative endeavour, but members of the Dundalk camp haven’t been reluctant to admit that the meeting with their rivals from Tallaght is their most important game this week.

Despite often being competitive during the campaign, the Louth outfit have lost all four of their Group B games thus far, so their chances of advancing to the knockout stages of the Europa League have already evaporated.

However, avoiding another defeat tonight against the Norwegian champions would provide an additional financial boost, which would be welcomed following Uefa’s decision to fine the club €50,000 for “shadow coaching” on the part of first-team boss Filippo Giovagnoli.

The 1-0 lead that Dundalk held at the interval was a fair reflection of the first half of their game against Molde at Tallaght Stadium in October. The visitors were a much different proposition after the break, scoring twice to leave the League of Ireland side empty-handed.

Another three-point haul for Molde would put them in pole position to secure second place and qualification for the last 32 ahead of next week’s decisive showdown at Rapid Vienna. Those sides are level on points, with Rapid away to Arsenal this evening.

“It will be a very tough game but we have to take heart from probably two thirds of our performance against them in the home game,” Dundalk assistant coach Shane Keegan said ahead of tonight’s return fixture against Molde.

“I thought we were probably the better side in the first half and deservedly had the lead. Now, to be fair to them, when they really turned the screw on us we couldn’t get out of our own half – couldn’t get out of our own third, really – for about 20/25 minutes of the second half, but then we came right back into it again.

“I think most people would agree that we were probably right to be scratching our heads as to how we came out of that game without something to show for it.

“When you’re competing against teams like Molde and Rapid Vienna, who are firm favourites in every respect – financially, quality-wise, all those kinds of things – the fact that we have gone toe-to-toe with them does give me huge confidence.

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“Any question marks we had over whether we thought we were good enough to mix with them before the first game are removed at this stage. Look, you have to respect them, they’re a serious side, but at the same time we have to fully believe that we can go and do something.”

shane-keegan-speaks-to-the-media-before-the-game Shane Keegan: 'The fact that we have gone toe-to-toe with them does give me huge confidence.' Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With two big games in such close proximity, Keegan is confident that Dundalk’s squad is strong enough to cope with the demands. Striker Patrick Hoban, whose season was recently ended by an ankle injury, is the only confirmed absentee in Molde.

“I think there is enough strength in depth and we’re absolutely capable of withdrawing a fella and replacing him with a fella who’s arguably as good,” insisted the former Wexford and Galway United manager.

“I think we can make changes as the game progresses to try and keep players fresh, while also them potentially being the ideal changes to make in terms of trying to get a result at the same time.”

Having rebounded from last week’s 3-1 defeat to Rapid Vienna with an 11-0 thrashing of Athlone Town in the semi-finals of the FAI Cup, Keegan is confident that the Oriel Park side are well-placed to finish the season in positive fashion.

The curtain will come down on their 2020 campaign across all competitions when Arsenal come to the Aviva Stadium in seven days’ time.

He said: “There are three huge games left for us to finish our season with. Whatever about points or results, I think we’re absolutely capable of giving three really big performances.

“What the outcome of those games is on the back of those performances, you don’t know, because a certain amount of that is in the hands of how well the opposition play, but from our point of view I think you’re going to see three really strong performances from us in these remaining three games.”

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Paul Dollery

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