Where once the race between Dundalk and Cork City for the League of Ireland Premier Division title looked all but over, suddenly it has become all to play for once again.
Dundalk’s surprise 3-0 defeat at home to Sligo Rovers on Saturday has electrified this title race in a way that could not have been anticipated before that game kicked off, and as a result there could be a new team at the top after Tuesday night’s showdown between the league’s top two sides.
While Stephen Kenny’s side were struggling at the weekend, John Caulfield’s were rampant. Sean Maguire set the tone for the evening by putting Cork City 1-0 at Eamonn Deacy Park with just over a minute on the clock – and for the second time in less than a month, City stuck five past Galway United.
Make no mistake, this is a Cork City side on a mission. For all the rush to bestow upon Dundalk the title of saviours of Irish football, that they could end this season trophyless would be a testament to what Caulfield has achieved not just over the past few months, but since he returned to Turners Cross as manager almost three years ago.
Caulfield readily accepted on Saturday that this Dundalk side are probably the greatest ever team to come out of the league, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be stopped as Sligo emphatically proved.
That the gap has been closed without Dundalk even playing that badly tells its own story. The defeat on Saturday was their first loss since a relatively poor run that ended in August, and they have earned 16 points from a possible 21 since that defeat in Bray.
However, City are a team bang in form. Since they were held two 0-0 draws in succession, also in August, they have rediscovered their goalscoring touch and putting four or five goals past opponents has become a frighteningly regular occurrence. In all, they have scored 23 goals in their last seven league games.
Psychologically, it will be in Dundalk’s heads that they are yet to beat Cork City this season. Their stranglehold over this particular fixture has long evaporated, and with the two sides set to meet again at the Aviva in next month’s FAI Cup final, how either side handles the pressure tonight mentally could have a huge bearing on not just one, but two trophies.
And that’s not even accounting for the fact that the Lillywhites still have that European campaign to maintain. Four points from their opening two games is a tremendous record for an Irish side in Europe, but Dundalk will have to play two more games between tonight and Thursday week – with eight games in all to play in just over three weeks, will it eventually catch up on them?
The example of Shamrock Rovers is invariably brought up as to how a team can maintain league-winning form while still competing in Europe – but the reality of that is that Rovers were out of contention to qualify from their group very early on, while Dundalk are very much in the hunt to reach the knockout phase in theirs.
All of that being said, this will not be easy for City by any stretch. Dundalk are on top of the domestic table for a reason, and have shown time and again that they are quite capable of digging deep and getting results if they need to.
Dundalk captain Stephen O’Donnell, speaking to RTE, has said that the experience of winning the title in 2014, beating Cork City 2-0 in a title decider at Oriel Park, can be a massive benefit:
“We’re still a point ahead,
“We were in a similar position a couple of years ago. We lost out on top spot going into the last game of the season against Cork and we won it. It’s a huge game and there’ll be no need to get motivated for it.
“We just have to dust ourselves down and get ready for it.”
Where Dundalk have the experience of winning that game, Caulfield has the experience of losing it, and all the desire for redemption that comes with that. By reminding their opponents of that heartbreak two years ago, O’Donnell might just have lit the touchpaper for a revenge mission.
With five league games to come for both sides after this, Tuesday night’s fixture won’t quite be the knockout blow for either’s title hopes – but mentally it is absolutely massive.
— Soccer Republic (@SoccRepublic) October 9, 2016