The two best sides in the SSE Airtricity League at the moment go head-to-head on Friday night when Dundalk welcome last season’s double-winners Cork City to Oriel Park (kick-off 7.35pm).
Stephen Kenny’s side come into this top-of-the-table clash with no fresh injury concerns following the mid-season break, as Stephen O’Donnell and John Mountney remain the only definite absentees.
Dundalk also come into this fixture on the back of eight consecutive wins in the league and Kenny will be hoping his players can carry that form into the second half of the campaign, starting with the visit of their arch rivals Cork, in what is sure to be an epic battle between two contrasting styles.
“Stephen O’Donnell is out and this game will come just too soon for John Mountney” Kenny told the club’s official website on Thursday.
“The players have shown a great attitude and we are on a great run. We put in some great performances before the break.”
“It should be a good atmosphere in Oriel Park tomorrow night. It’s going to be a difficult game but we are all very much looking forward to it and we are all enthused by the occasion.”
The mid-season break may have come at the worst possible time for Dundalk, who really seemed to click into first gear in the weeks leading up to the break, scoring a combined total of 20 goals in their last five league outings.
One player who has been instrumental this season is Robbie Benson.
He said: “We were very good against Derry City before the mid-season break. It was one of our best performances of the season. Our pressing game was as good as it has been all year.
“It was important to get the goal before the break to put us on our way but we had a lot of possession and we deserved it. We played well and put on a show to get us a big three points into the break.
“We are firing on all cylinders at the minute. I think we have clicked properly and we are looking good at the moment. The break gave us a good chance to relax and recharge so we were delighted to get it.
“We want to keep our momentum going and want to keep winning matches after the break. We have great confidence in ourselves and in the group. We are playing well at the moment and we want that to continue.
“It’s a big game to come back into, it’s a good game to play in and they are the matches that you want to play in. It’s going to be a difficult game for us but we know what we have to do.
“It’s an important game but nothing will be decided on the night. There’s a long way to go. We are looking forward to it.
“It’s going to be a great game it looks like, it will be difficult but we are ready for it and hopefully we can get another three points to keep us on the way.”
Cork also came into the mid-season break on the back of some outstanding form, winning seven games on the bounce which saw them take a one-point advantage at the top of the league table.
John Caulfield, however, will be under no illusions about the difficulties they are to face in their pursuit of retaining the League of Ireland title for what would be the first time in the club’s history.
“We are back in after the break this week and all looking forward to the game,” he said.
“We have a few knocks and bruises, but we would hope that most players would be okay. We will certainly give them all every chance to be available, right up to kick-off.”
“We know it will be a very tough, intense game. Games between the two teams have been really close over the last few years, and we expect nothing different this time around. Like we always do, we are going there to try and win the match.
“Over the last number of years, we have had some really good results there, but we know we need to be at our best tomorrow. We know that, if we perform to our best, then we feel we can get the points.”
“I think it is a good game for us, coming back from the break. A lot of the lads did work themselves over the break, and their physical condition is excellent.
“Training has been excellent all week; since last Sunday, everyone has been on the button and ready to go, and that’s the way we need it to be.”
The quartet of Steven Beattie, Alan Bennett, Karl Sheppard and Gearoid Morrissey have all picked up knocks and been classified as doubtful to pass fit for this crucial top-of-the table clash at Oriel Park.
Referee: Robert Harvey
Victory for Dundalk would make it nine league wins on the bounce for the Lilywhites for the first time since they beat Galway United 5-0 at Terryland Park (now known as Eamonn Deacy Park) in October 1982.
This will be the 73rd encounter between the sides since Cork City's first ever League of Ireland fixture back in September 1984 – Dundalk won that game 1-0 thanks to a debut goal from Tom McNulty at Oriel Park.
Stephen O’Donnell and Stephen Folan have both represented Cork in the past while Peter Cherrie is the only former Dundalk player in the Cork squad, having previously kept goal more than 200 times for the Lilywhites.
Dundalk 5/6; Draw 12/5; Cork City 7/2
Dundalk 1-1 Cork City
Injured: John Mountney, Stephen O’Donnell.
Injured: Steven Beattie, Alan Bennett, Karl Sheppard, Gearoid Morrissey.