Injury problems mounting up for Dundalk ahead of Zenit meeting
EUROPA LEAGUE Group D: Dundalk v Zenit St Petersburg (8.05pm)
THE late Johan Cruyff once said: ‘Why couldn’t you beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.’
Zenit St Petersburg’s annual budget is in the region of €165m. Dundalk’s is a meagre €1m. The startling financial differential between the pair suggests Dundalk have no chance in tonight’s Europa League clash at Tallaght Stadium.
The Russian giants, who won the competition eight years ago, would expect to feature in this season’s Europa League final. Dundalk’s lofty target is to get out of the group stages – and they have every chance after taking four points out of a possible six from their first two games against AZ Alkmaar and Macaibi Tel Aviv.
But Zenit is a significant step up in class for the League of Ireland champions and probably rank as their toughest-ever test on the European stage. Dundalk’s challenge looks all the more daunting due to their heavy fixture list of late, playing six times in comparison to Zenit’s two outings since their last Europa League fixtures at the end of last month.
To compound their woes, manager Stephen Kenny has a list of injuries the length of his arm, although at yesterday’s press conference he ruled out only one player for definite – captain Stephen O’Donnell (hamstring).
But Kenny is nothing but an optimist. The 44-year-old Dubliner says it would be a mistake to over-analyse their Russian opponents ahead of tonight’s Group D encounter – and, in any case, they haven’t had time to study them as a group.
Asked about preparations ahead of tonight’s glamour European tie, Kenny said: “Am I happy in my own head? No. Our preparation couldn’t be any worse.
“We’ve done nothing on the training ground; and we’ve been dragging fellas in for hours of video. For games like BATE Borisov everybody knew what was expected of them from the start of the week.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t rise above all that. Sometimes you have to get strength from wherever you can and realise the night that’s in it and grasp it and believe in what you’re doing. The adrenaline is important and hopefully that will carry us.”
John Mountney, Chris Shields and Sean Gannon are among Dundalk’s walking wounded.
“You’ve players with different personalities in the team,” explained Kenny.
“The likes of Chris [Shields] is shouting at the physio: ‘Don’t even think of ruling me out.’ Sometimes you’ve to make the right calls even if players are desperate to play – they’re all desperate to play.
“We’re not at the stage where we have to put somebody out on the field that’s not 100 per cent fit.
“We don’t want that. You can’t carry passengers at this level, so you have to make decisions based on that.”
Kenny added: “You go into the dressing room after winning on Monday night [against Longford] and there are fellas that are tired and there are injured players on benches all over the place.
“You’re looking around [shaking his head]… You come out of the dressing room and you should be euphoric that you’ve won and you’re seven points clear [at the top of the league], and you’re thinking ‘Jeez, how are we going to get right?’
“But today, two or three days on, your optimistic nature over-rides that and you start thinking about our strategy because we’ve watched them over the last couple of weeks.”
The former Derry City boss has no intentions of ‘parking the bus’ or playing the “low block” – a fashionable term for a 6-3-1 formation – in stemming the Zenit tide.
With a wry smile, Kenny said: “There’s an in-joke in the group at the minute – the ‘low block’ – which is a phrase everyone is using now. We’re not playing the ‘low block’, alright? “It’s a back four and the two wide players outside of that, so it gives you a six and a three and a one...
“We’ve worked hard to get there. We’re here on merit and we have to carry that spirit of adventure that we’ve shown in all our games and not be worried about the strengths of Zenit because they are very attacking; they’re so attacking that they force teams on the defensive.
“Whoever Zenit play against they force you to play that way. The low block is a legitimate way of playing; a lot of the Premier League teams are playing that way. If you listen over the next couple of weeks, you’ll hear that term 20 times!
“[But] We want to play our natural way, so we have our ways of making sure we’re not forced back. I think if you play that way [defensive], there’s an inevitability you’ll lose. It becomes a matter of time.
“That’s not what our success has been based on. Our success has been based on greater ambition than that. And we mustn’t lose that ambition or we’ll lose.”
Kenny’s optimism is totally bullet proof. He has unshakable belief in his players’ ability. On the verge of clinching their third successive league title and an FAI Cup final to look forward to next month, Dundalk have been lauded as the best team to ever come out of Ireland.
The fact that Kenny talked about being top of Group D after tonight’s third Europa League game sums up the Dubliner’s outlook.
“Listen, Zenit are an outstanding team,” he said.
“They turned down £20m for Axel Witsel [from Juventus] and you can see why. They’ve got a lot of good players. But we can’t worry about that, or concern ourselves with that. This is the way they’ll set up and this is the way we’ll set up.
“[We’ll be thinking] What gives us a chance and how can we make sure they don’t exploit us? And how can we play to create chances and what can we do, tactically, to ask questions of them rather than just worrying about trying to fill holes and trying to stop them.
“We’ve a chance of going top of both leagues tomorrow night. That’s the way we look at it. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along often.
“We’ve worked so hard to get here. It’s a great event in people’s lives. This is a period where players will reflect upon in 10 years time and think that this was a special season.
“You’ve got a real sense of history about the whole thing. Tomorrow night is a night we should enjoy – as coaches, as players and relish being part of a great club coming to Dublin to play ourselves.”