Dundalk undergo the first leg of what is to be a very difficult Europa League second qualifying round assignment against AEK Larnaca at Oriel Park on Thursday night (kick-off 7.45pm).
The ticket demands for this tie far outweighed what will be a restricted capacity at Oriel, with the match completely selling out within barely an hour of going on general sale last Sunday.
Dundalk could be unchanged from last week’s win over Levadia Tallinn, as manager Stephen Kenny has no fresh injury concerns with Sam Byrne, Stephen Folan and Stephen O’Donnell the only definite absentees.
“We respect Larnaca,” said Kenny at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.
“They’ve had some great victories in Europe in the last couple of years, they’ve beaten Spartak Moscow and Dinamo Minsk so we have to respect them in that regard.
“The game is won over two legs so we don’t have to win anything tomorrow. It’s a two-legged affair but the players are playing with confidence.
“We’ve had 12 straight victories. The players have been in terrific form and we want to take that into the game tomorrow.
“Ruaidhri Higgins (opposition analyst) was in Poland and watched AEK Larnaca against AEK Athens so that was an insight.
“Their league hasn’t started so they had two games in Poland that were both scoreless draws. We’ve not had loads of footage of them in recent times because they’ve not had many games but there’s not been radical changes in the squad overall.
“They had a very good European campaign last year, just losing in the [Europa League] play-off narrowly to Viktoria Plzen so we’ve been able to view those games and assess them as a team.
“I think Levadia were a very good team. They proved that last week. Larnaca have players that have made a lot of appearances in La Liga so their pedigree is obviously higher.
“The home tie is not necessarily the easier one. We’re very proud to be Ireland’s representatives in the Europa League and it’s something that the players are very aware of. The players are ambitious themselves, they want to do well.”
Dundalk has been emblazoned in colour throughout the past number of weeks with the team’s exploits in Europe really capturing the imagination of the town’s residents, something Kenny believes should not be understated.
“When European nights come to a provincial town like Dundalk, it lifts the town. It’s very important for the region and, when we’re successful in Europe, it really elevates people’s morale.
“It has a huge effect on the morale of everyone in the region and that’s why it’s very important. We’re very determined and we’re looking forward to the games.”
The Cypriot outfit have travelled without injured club captain David Catala.
Marios Antoniades, Vladimir Boljevic, Vincent Laban, Onisiforos Roushias, Igor Silva and Florian Taulemesse are injured, while Macedonian international Daniel Mojov – who has made the squad – is a major doubt.
Former Athletic Bilbao and Spanish international right-back Andoni Iraola will take charge of AEK Larnaca for the first time on Thursday night after succeeding his countryman Imanol Idiakez in May.
“You always try to win,” Iraola said at a press conference before Larnaca undertook a training session at Oriel Park on Wednesday evening.
“We know that it will not be easy, we are expecting a difficult game with a good team on a good run. It will not be easy but we will try to win.
“They have quality players and play fast football and I would call them a good team. For us, it is the first official game while the opponent is on a winning streak.
“We may have some absentees but it's not an excuse.”
Of the players that have made the trip to Ireland, three of them are full internationals with Mojsov and Ivan Trickovski having both previously been capped by Macedonia.
Striker Apostolos Giannou has represented Australia at senior level.
There’s also a large Spanish influence within the squad as Nacho Cases, Mikel Gonzalez, Jorge Larena, Tono Ramirez, Acoran Reyes and Joan Tomas have all played in La Liga.
Referee: Harald Lechner (Austria).
Dundalk haven’t lost a European match at Oriel Park since Hajduk Split recorded a 2-0 win in a Europa League qualifier in 2014.
BATE Borisov (2015), FH Hafnarfjordur (2016), Rosenborg (2017) and Levadia Tallinn (2018) have all failed to beat the Lilywhites at the Louth venue.
This will be the 23rd time that Dundalk have played in Europe under the management of Stephen Kenny and, of those encounters, the Lilywhites have lost by more than a goal on just two occasions.
Last week’s victory over Levadia was Dundalk’s 15th consecutive win in all competitions. They haven’t lost a game of any kind at Oriel since February – a sequence which now spans 16 matches.
Dundalk 11/8; Draw 19/10; AEK Larnaca 19/10
Dundalk 1-1 AEK Larnaca
Injured: Sam Byrne, Stephen Folan, Stephen O’Donnell.
Doubtful: Patrick McEleney.
Injured: David Catala, Marios Antoniades, Vladimir Boljevic, Vincent Laban, Onisiforos Roushias, Igor Silva, Florian Taulemesse.
Doubtful: Daniel Mojov.