An early clash between two title challengers is always a big occasion, but for Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk, it’s already starting to feel like more than that.
With both sides dropping points in their respective season-opening clashes last week, what happens in Tallaght on Friday night will have a massive bearing on, certainly the immediate outlook for either if not the medium to longer-term ambitions for this season. At least one of the two will be going into week three still without a win to their name.
Shamrock Rovers, at home, will be confident of making that home advantage work in their favour. A lack of confidence is never a fault you could ever throw at the Hoops and Friday will be no different. Looking at last season’s results versus Dundalk at Tallaght, a 2-1 win in the league followed up by a chastening 3-0 EA Sports Cup final defeat and 4-2 extra time defeat in an FAI Cup semi-final replay, will give them enough belief that they can get one over on last season’s runners-up, but failing to back their confidence up with a performance to match has sometimes been this team’s downfall.
Regarding last week’s 3-1 Dublin derby defeat to Bohemians, it’s probably not so much the result that should worry Bradley, but the display. Apart from the period soon after going a goal up through Ronan Finn in the first half, Rovers rarely looked in control of proceedings at Dalymount. Granted, Bohs were posing too much of a threat in that opening period either, but the visitors weren’t playing with the authority of title contenders, like a team determined to silence the doubters.
The collapse, meanwhile, was unforgivable. Credit must go to Bohs for the manner in which they orchestrated their comeback, but a series of defensive errors from the away side made things easier for them. 1-0 became 1-3 in a matter of minutes and Shamrock Rovers can have no complaints about the result.
The pre-season murmurings were, as they often are, of closing the gap on Cork City and Dundalk, of finally becoming the third team to enter what had hitherto been a two-horse race. If they don’t get a positive result on Friday night, can they really still make those claims with the same bravado in public?
Stephen Bradley and the Hoops want to be seen as bona fide Premier Division title challengers – now is their chance to prove it.
For Dundalk meanwhile, it seems inconceivable but they are pretty close to having to prove themselves again. Their four-goal collapse against Cork City in the President’s Cup would quickly have been forgotten about had they beaten Bray Wanderers the following week, but last Friday’s 0-0 stalemate will have raised a couple of questions.
Having lost ground in last season’s title ‘race’ early on, Stephen Kenny’s side can ill-afford to find themselves in the same position this time around. Kenny has become accustomed to the loss of key players in the off-season, and the departures of Niclas Vemmelund, Patrick McEleney and David McMillan will take a bit of getting used to.
That’s not to suggest that they won’t click, of course, Dundalk’s pre-season signings, the likes of Ronan Murray, Pat Hoban and Stephen Folan, are of strong pedigree and the hype around former Liverpool academy playet Kriszian Adorjan has been slowly building. With tremendous squad depth and a whole host of creative talent available to the Lilywhites then it is a matter of when, not if, it all comes together for them.
The question, though, is how long will that take, and in what shape will the title race be when it does?
Not to suggest that the loser on Friday (if there is one) will be out of the title race – both teams are among the strongest in the division and deserve way more time and credit than that – but it’s not too early to plant tiny seeds of doubt in their minds and derail their challenge for a couple of weeks at least.
With so much on the line already, expect fireworks in Tallaght this weekend.
In this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we look back at last week’s season-opening Dublin derby and debate Graham Cummins’ controversial red card as we review and preview all of the latest League of Ireland action.