With the summer break now over, the League of Ireland Premier Division title race takes centre stage once again on Friday night.
Dundalk welcome Cork City to Oriel Park on Friday night, with both neck-and-neck in the Premier Division title hunt. The break will have given both teams an opportunity to refresh and refocus ahead of what is shaping up to be the closest title race since 2014.
And yet, just around the corner, the curveball of European football is waiting in the wings. Cork City have been drawn to face Legia Warsaw in the first qualifying round of the Champions League, while Dundalk will face off against Levadia Tallinn in the Europa League.
This will be a European campaign for Irish clubs like no other, insofar as there are certain guarantees and expectations in place; UEFA’s new qualification system was supposed to make things harder for smaller clubs to climb the ladder, and yet optimism for the top two in this country to deliver and progress has arguably never been higher.
Cork City, even if they lose to Legia Warsaw next month, will receive a bye into the Europa League third qualifying round, thereby skipping the second round altogether. This means that the absolute earliest that City will be out of Europe this season will be mid-August, two weeks later than their 2016 run that was ended by Genk.
For Dundalk, too, there are certain expectations that perhaps haven’t been on this team before. In Levadia Tallinn they face a side that Cork City had little trouble in putting away in 2017 – should they accomplish that, as luck would have it, they will face another of City’s opponents last season in the form of AEK Larnaca.
Given the rivalry that exists between the two sides, there will be a degree of pressure on the Lilywhites to ensure that they at least match City’s run in Europe this season – granted, the Leesiders have had a degree of fortune already, but that will mean little to a side that is determined to bring the mantle of the best team in the country back to Louth.
The added fixtures will, of course, stretch the squads, and could be a major part of the thinking behind Dundalk’s rumoured interest in re-signing Patrick McEleney. The playmaker only departed Oriel at the end of last season, but despite the strong form of Jamie McGrath and potential loan extension of Kristijan Adorjan, having a player with the pedigree of McEleney to rotate and keep the squad fresh and avoid fatigue for both a domestic and European assault would be a huge bonus for Stephen Kenny.
Cork, by contrast, don’t quite have the same strength in depth beyond what is a supremely talented starting eleven. The emergence of their young defence has been a huge boost, and in Mark McNulty and Peter Cherrie they possess two of the best goalkeepers in the league, but the midfield and forward options might not be strong enough to fire on all cylinders on both fronts.
It could ultimately come down to who prioritises what at the right time, and who manages their squad better. The title race is obviously pivotal and will have the full focus of the clubs again come August (unless one of them, or even Shamrock Rovers or Derry City, climbs into the group stages) but by then, how will the overall landscape have changed?
It’s a difficult task awaiting Kenny and John Caulfield, as European nights at home and the trips away to far-flung cities have become part of the experience of supporting successful Irish clubs like Dundalk and Cork City – but then so has seeing the players lifting silverware at the end of the campaign, so the trade-off is a huge balancing act.
The next few weeks will be a tightrope for the clubs involved, and that walk begins at Oriel Park on Friday night. Regardless of who comes out on top in that encounter, nothing will be decided in late June. This year, far more than the procession that masqueraded as a title race in 2017, European competition could play a huge role in where the Premier Division trophy ultimately ends up.
Kenny and Caulfield will both need to have one eye each on the domestic and European paths over the next month or so – whoever looks away first could be ceding the advantage in the process.