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KNOCKOUT HOPE HANGS FINN THE BALANCE; Ronan and Co struggle against Dutchmen.

Byline: PAUL O'HEHIR

DUNDALK 0

AZ ALKMAAR 1

Weghorst 9

THE wheels came off the Dundalk juggernaut last night but Stephen Kenny's charges get one more chance to turn their European dream into reality.

Whatever unfolded at Tallaght Stadium, the Lilywhites knew their push for the Last 32 would boil down to their Israeli jaunt in a fortnight.

Wout Weghorst's early goal (inset) - and what a soft goal to concede - just makes their task against Maccabi Tel Aviv all the more difficult.

But it's precisely that backs-to-the-wall pressure that Dundalk have thrived on all season, particularly in these high stakes European games.

They are down but not out.

A win in Israel will do it unless AZ beat Zenit, who are already qualified, in their final game. And a score draw should be sufficient if Zenit see off the Dutch side.

Such has been the level of expectation attached to the Lilywhites, this defeat comes as a crushing disappointment.

After a three-week lay-off since their FAI Cup final defeat, Dundalk were nowhere near their fluent best.

The night had started so well too with Zenit doing Stephen Kenny and his team a massive favour by beating Maccabi in St Petersburg. Not for the want of trying but Dundalk's cutting edge in attack abandoned them when they needed it most and Gary Rogers bailed them out with three brilliant second half saves.

But while defeat to an AZ side that had to win to stay alive in Group D is a body blow, Dundalk will improve for this game.

Amid last month's ridiculous run of games, Dundalk would have welcomed a break of any sort but here, least, it appeared their lay-off would count against them.

The league champions were noticeably sluggish for the opening 25 minutes, unable to find the rhythm and swagger that we have become accustomed to.

And more's the pity too because they found themselves trailing after just nine minutes. Giant striker Weghorst couldn't believe his luck.

From a cleared corner, Mats Seuntjens whipped in a deep cross from the left which Andy Boyle, the recent Republic of Ireland call-up, couldn't get his head to.

His leap saw Dane Massey check back on his own attempt to clear but the ball clipped the left-back on the thigh, dropping kindly to Weghorst and he did the business from 10 yards. And that alarming start for the Lilywhites didn't show any signs of improving with Kenny's charges pinned deep in their own territory until midway through the half.

When Dundalk belatedly got their toe in, they were frustrated by an inability to retain possession for long enough in the final third.

But gradua to seep start Euthpw gradually the confidence started through. Ciaran Kilduff, starting his first game of this European campaign, held the ball up well and twice peppered the AZ goal with headers.

Ronan Finn, a tenacious presence despite carrying an injury, tried his luck from distance and later danced into the box and supplied a low cross crying out punished.

Finally, the Lilywhites had shown up and the Tallaght crowd duly responded. Having scored in every group game before this, those fans lived in hope heading into the second half.

Mind you, they faced into that challenge without skipper Stephen O'Donnell who - carrying calf and hamstring injuries anyway - had to cry off three minutes before the break. There wasn't a great deal between the sides in what was now a more balanced tie, the visitors were the ones carving out the chances.

Rogers had a relatively quiet night up to this point but sparked to life with a flurry of saves to keep Dundalk honest and in contention.

First he denied Weghorst a second goal when showing brilliant reactions to deflect a close range shot to safety.

And soon after he denied Ben Rienstra with his feet before shutting out Stijn Wuytens with a save down low at his near post.

In return, Dundalk were struggling to spark at the other end. Their approach play was fine but Rogers' counterpart, Sergio Rochet, ultimately had it all too easy.

That said, Rochet's heart was in his mouth with seven minutes remaining.

Finn's scooped ball to the back post appeared to be overcooked. Still, sub David McMillan was arriving at the back post but couldn't get the killer touch, try as his might.

Sean Gannon too sparked a lively finish with a low drive that deflected out for a corner but while Dundalk had AZ in a late flap, they couldn't salvage the point they craved.

irishsport@trinitymirror.com

EUROPA LEAGUE GRP D P WD L F APTS Zenit 5 50015515 AZALKMAAR 5 12238 5 Dundalk 5113464 Macc Tel Aviv 5 1 1 3 5 8 4 DEC 8: Maccabi Tel Aviv v Dundalk; AZ Alkmaar v Zenit St Petersburg REMAINING GAMES

CAPTION(S):

TALLAGHT TORMENT Dundalk's Ronan Finn feels the frustration as another chance goes abegging last night
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 25, 2016
Words:821
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