Dundalk went into Thursday’s Europa League game against Dutch side AZ Alkmaar with qualification to the later stages of the tournament still an achievable goal.
Zenit St. Petersburg were the group’s runaway leaders leaving second place a possibility for the other three teams.
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and his assistant, Roy Keane, were both in attendance and rumours had been circulating all day of a gaggle of scouts being there to watch star man Daryl Horgan.
The winger has been in excellent form all season provoking interest from Sunderland, Newcastle and Ipswich to name just three. All eyes would be on him and if Dundalk were to have any chance of grabbing all three points Horgan would need to be on his game.
The League of Ireland champions were dealt a sucker punch in the early stages of the game going a goal behind after Wout Weghorst tapped in from close range when Dundalk’s defence failed to clear the ball.
Stephen Kenny’s men bounced back showing excellent composure on the ball in the first half, at times looking technically superior to the Dutch side. Ronan Finn, Robbie Benson and Dane Massey knitting things together nicely while Stephen O’Donnell screened the back four until he was forced off through injury just before half time, Dundalk’s control of the midfield went with him. Horgan was finding it difficult to play his way into the game having to drop deep into midfield to get on the ball at all in the opening stages.
Having had a couple of half chances, Dundalk went in at the break trailing by one goal to nil. AZ manager John van den Brommust have had some choice words for his side as they came out for the second half with a point to prove. Horgan was having little or no joy going forward but was performing his defensive duties well, dropping into midfield to mop up loose balls and covering AZ runs.
Having had such an outstanding season there’s a pressure on Horgan anytime he gets the ball, the crowd expects. In the domestic league he so often comes up with the goods, he does exceptional things but on Thursday night the ball just refused to drop in his favour. The AZ defenders had clearly done their homework on him too, at times doubling up to force him out wide.
He didn’t set Tallaght alight on the night, instead putting in a solid enough performance. However, one aspect of his game that fell way short of his usual high standard was his set-pieces. He let AZ off the hook too often with some very poor corners and the one time he had a free-kick that looked within shooting range he elected to scoop it into the box instead.
With interest around Horgan at an all-time high, the final group game of this Europa League campaign could be his last for Dundalk.
He will, however, want to leave a better impression than he did on Thursday.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena