Dundalk made waves in Europe with an historic run in the Europa League last season, and this year’s European adventure gets under way tomorrow.
The Lilywhites host Rosenborg in the second round of the Champions League qualifiers at Oriel Park, and the Norwegian side represent tricky opponents for the Irish club.
After a stuttering start to the season, Dundalk are showing signs of returning to their best form.
Stephen Kenny’s charges have won all five of their matches since their 3-0 humbling at home at the hands of Cork City, and have scored 16 and conceded zero in those five clashes.
Rosenborg also come to Oriel Park in good form. The club have several senior internationals at their disposal, and also count former Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner among their ranks.
The 24 time Norwegian champions have reached the group stages of Europe’s competition 15 times in the last 22 years, and have scored 11 goals in their last three outings ahead of their journey to Ireland.
“They are a very experienced team with very few young players,” Stephen Kenny observed.
“Their age profile is mainly 26–31 and a lot of the players have been capped by Norway and Denmark.
“They have a fair bit of experience and attacking midfield players like Mike Jansen, their captain, and Vilhjalmsson, an Icelandic international goalscorer who are very effective in getting forward.
“Jensen is a small attacking player, getting forward and supporting the front three in a more creative sense and Vilhjalmsson is more powerful, breaking forward and scoring a lot of goals, a lot of headed goals, arriving late and getting on the end of crosses.”
Dundalk, however, will be encouraged by the success of Cork City and Shamrock Rovers in the Europa League in recent weeks. Last week, the Leesiders and Rovers successfully navigated their first round Europa League ties – against Levadia Tallinn and Stjarnan respectively – but Derry City endured a difficult 10-2 aggregate defeat against Danish side FC Midtjylland.
The Lilywhites have lost Andy Boyle, Daryl Horgan and Ronan Finn since last year’s thrilling journey to the Europa League group stages, but still possess a talented squad nonetheless.
Kenny brought in players such as Michael Duffy, Nicklas Vemellund, and Jamie McGrath over the summer, and Bray Wanderers star Dylan Connolly has also been acquired in recent weeks.
It is Patrick McEleney, whoever, who is primed to be Dundalk’s European talisman this time around.
The 24 year old playmaker was yesterday named as the SSE Airtricity/Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland Player of the Month for June, and he has scored four goals in his last five appearances for Kenny’s side.
Amazingly, Dundalk’s number 11 is the first non-Cork City player to receive the award this season, with the Leesiders storming into a 12 point lead at the summit of the league table.
The Derry native joined Dundalk from Derry City in 2015, and featured in all 12 of the Town’s European fixtures last season, as well as making the 2016 PFAI Premier Division Team of the Year.
This season, however, has seen McEleney hit new heights for the Lilywhites in terms of personal form. He has scored eight goals this season from midfield, including stunning individual strikes against Drogheda United and St Patrick’s Athletic.
The former Candystripes star is comfortable on the ball, can run at players, and has an excellent eye for a pass.
If Dundalk are to overcome Rosenborg, McEleney’s creativity will be key.
The reigning league champions have been watertight at the back of late, shutting out their opposition in nine of their last ten matches. A solid defensive display – and a clean sheet – will be crucial tonight in Louth if Dundalk are to give themselves a good chance in Norway.
If the Irish side can keep it tight at the back, the likes of McEleny, David McMillan and last year’s European hero Ciaran Kilduff – who will likely be sprung from the bench – could fire Dundalk towards another famous European adventure.
Given his ability and form, it seems likely that it will be McEleney who answers the door when the next English club comes calling. The playmaker signed a three-and-a-half year deal with Steve Bruce’s Sunderland when he was 16, but returned to Ireland after a few short months due to homesickness.
Former Irish international Stephen Elliot has advised new Sunderland boss Simon Grayson – who brought a contingent of Irish players to Preston – to look at Dundalk’s number 11.
A future international call up could also be on the cards, with McEleney eligible for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Tonight, however, his focus will very much be on Rosenborg.
“These are the games you want to be involved in, and the games you need to produce in. I put that pressure on myself. My target now is to try be the best player I can be – and reach for the top,” the 24 year old said.
“This is a great time in everyone’s life to go and play Champion League football,” Stephen Kenny claimed ahead of the tie.
“You can never take that for granted and this club should never take it for granted that they are in the Champions League, the players and myself included.
“You can never predict what is going to happen in life and, certainly, every opportunity you get to play in the Champions League, to manage or coach in it, you have to grasp it. It’s a fantastic opportunity and that’s the way we have to look at this.”
The journey begins at Oriel Park at 7.45pm tonight.
This article originally appeared on The Season Ticket.