DUNDALK'S hopes of reaching the last 32 knockout stages of the Europa League were dealt a serious blow when they lost 1-0 to AZ Alkmaar in Tallaght Stadium on Thursday night.
An early goal from Wout Weghorst after a mix up in the Dundalk defence proved to be decisive, on a night that failed to match the excitement of previous European ties in Tallaght in recent months.
The Lilywhites’ 50th and penultimate competitive fixture of 2016 proved to be one of the most disappointing of the season, as they never got going during a 90-minute performance that lacked the spark and intensity of many of their games over the course of the past year.
The result was all the more disappointing, given that Zenit St Petersburg’s win over Maccabi Tel Aviv earlier in the evening meant that a 0-0 or 1-1 draw would have put Dundalk strongly in contention for second place in the group.
But the Lilywhites now have to go for goals in Israel on December 8th against Maccabi and hope that group winners Zenit do them a favour by beating AZ on the same night, although if Zenit do win in Alkmaar, a score draw for Dundalk in Israel would be enough to see them progress.
Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny predicted an "epic" battle between the two sides before the game, but the events that transpired certainly didn’t meet expectations, and Dundalk’s uncharacteristically sluggish start against a much livelier AZ side set the tone for much of what was to follow over the course of the 90 minutes.
Early pressure from AZ produced two corners that the Dundalk defence scrambled clear before Gary Rogers had to punch away a cross into the danger area, and it got worse in the ninth minute when the visitors took the lead.
A cross into the box from Mats Seuntjens should have been dealt with by the Dundalk defence, but when Andy Boyle misjudged the flight of the ball he missed his attempted header, and the ball rebounded off Dane Massey’s knee to fall invitingly into the path of Wout Weghorst, who had time to pick his spot and tuck away an easy chance to put his side ahead.
As the half wore on, Dundalk did improve on their poor opening and although rather sporadic, they did begin to pose some attacking threat, and were almost presented with a chance by a slack clearance from AZ goalkeeper Sergio Rochet which was charged down by Ciaran Kilduff.
A long range effort from Ronan Finn and a Kilduff header from Daryl Horgan’s cross in the latter stages of the first half offered some hope that Dundalk were shaking off their early lethargy, but any signs of a second half revival were not in evidence in the first 20 minutes of the second-half, which AZ dominated.
A long range effort from Muamer Tankovic had Gary Rogers scrambling across goal, before the best move of the game arrived just before the hour with Weghorst finishing off a fine passing movement with a shot that was well pushed away by the Dundalk keeper.
Rogers was called into action twice more to make good saves as the game moved into the final quarter, at which point Dundalk had failed to manage a single goalscoring effort on target.
David McMillan and Dean Shiels replaced Ciaran Kilduff and Patrick McEleney in the last 15 minutes as Stephen Kenny desperately tried to freshen up his flagging side’s goalscoring threat, and finally the hitherto subdued crowd had something to get excited about when a Ronan Finn chip shot drifted just wide of the post and a Sean Gannon shot was deflected for a corner.
But it was too little too late, and after McMillan headed wide from a Gannon cross as the game moved into stoppage time, the curtain came down on a disappointing night that had promised so much two hours earlier.