Dundalk begin yet another European odyssey as they welcome Latvian double-winners Riga FC to Oriel Park in the first leg of their Champions League qualifier on Wednesday night (kick-off 7.45pm).
It will be the sixth year in a row that the Lilywhites will participate in European competition and they will be hoping to use that considerable experience as ammunition in this upcoming tie versus Riga.
Vinny Perth sees that as an advantage despite taking charge of Dundalk for the first time in Europe, with nine players from their historic run to the Europa League group stages in 2016 now at the club.
“I most certainly don’t see it as my first European game,” Perth said at Tuesday’s press conference.
“I accept obviously my role in the club has changed since January but this is a very experienced group in terms of the management team we have and obviously the players so it’s not our first game by any stretch of the imagination.
“I think we’re very well prepared. Over the years, we’ve always prepared well and I’ve been heavily involved with that as well so we’re certainly not inexperienced in that sense. It’s a really exciting time for everyone in the club, it’s something we always look forward to.
“We’ve done it all before – we’ve been behind, we’ve had difficult nights, we’ve drawn here against FH from Iceland and there was a bit of doom and gloom. We’ve had positive results here as well in Europe so we’ve experienced all of the highs and the lows.
“The players, led by Brian [Gartland], Stephen O’Donnell coming into the management team – they’ve got huge experience, they’ve been here and done that. This will be 26 European games and before this season’s out, we’re heading towards 30 so we’re very experienced.”
Tickets for this match had sold out well in advance and Dundalk’s head coach is calling on supporters to get behind his Lilywhite army, which could help them bring a positive result to Latvia next week.
“The level of support we’ve had in away venues this year has been unreal,” continued Perth.
“We need this to be another special European night, we need to do it together. As a club and as a town, we need to not take these nights for granted. They’re special nights and we have to enjoy them.”
Perth has named a 22-man squad for this tie, all of whom successfully completed training on Tuesday with Jordan Flores (injured) and Stephen Folan (impending departure) the only absentees.
A club that hadn’t even been established when Dundalk last lost a European match at Oriel Park in 2014, this will be Riga’s second campaign in Europe and their first ever in the Champions League.
The Latvians took Bulgarian giants CSKA Sofia all the way penalties in Europa League qualifying last year before winning the league and cup double in what was only their fourth season in existence.
“In terms of the game, I think it’s a really tough game,” said Perth, who’s not buying into Dundalk’s tag as favourites.
“We would have played Levadia Tallinn this time last year and I would consider Riga slightly better than Levadia Tallinn so it’s a game that we have to be ready for, we have to be prepared and we have to bring our a-game.
“I would say they would probably have liked to got us in the draw or maybe the Welsh side [The New Saints] because we were one of the seeded teams so I think it’s a favourable draw for them.
“They could have got a lot worse so they will see it as an opportunity but we’re in really good form, we’ve a lot of players in really good physical condition and we think we’re in a good place at the moment. I think that’s backed up by our league position.
“This is the most positive I think we’ve ever been heading into a European game. It’s probably the best the squad has ever been in my opinion, since I’ve been at the club so I think we’re in a good place.”
Since being drawn against Dundalk, Riga have been fairly active in the transfer market, especially following the departures of top scorer Darko Lemajic and Georgian international Davit Skhirtladze.
They’ve made several new signings with Roman Debelko – who scored at Oriel last year for Levadia Tallinn – coming in as well as former Manchester City and Norwegian international Abdisalam Ibrahim, Deniss Rakels (ex-Reading and capped 27 times by Latvia), Roger and Vyacheslav Sharpar.
It takes the number of internationals at the Riga club to 12 – nine of which have travelled to Ireland and trained in Muirhevnamor on Monday before partaking in another session at Oriel on Tuesday.
The most notable omission from the Riga squad to face Dundalk is the injured Arturs Karasausks, while Antons Kurakins, Minori Sato, Kevin Berigaud and Ivans Lukjanovs also miss out on the trip.
Of their 22-man squad, the experienced Olegs Laizans misses out through injury while Brazilian Felipe Brisola is also a doubt. One-time Serbia cap Stefan Panic serves a one-match suspension.
Referee: Peter Kralovic (Slovakia)
Dundalk haven’t lost a European match at Oriel Park since Hajduk Split beat them 2-0 in a Europa League qualifier in 2014 – BATE Borisov (2015), FH Hafnarfjordur (2016), Rosenborg (2017), Levadia Tallinn and AEK Larnaca (2018) have all since failed to defeat the Lilywhites at the Co. Louth venue.
This will be the first time that Dundalk have faced Latvian opposition in European competition. However, it’s the sixth time a League of Ireland side will come up against a club from the Baltic state.
Only twice though, has an Irish team successfully negotiated a tie against Latvian opponents with St Patrick’s Athletic beating JFK Olimps in 2008 and Derry City beating Skonto Riga a year later in 2009.
Dundalk 7/10; Draw 23/10; Riga FC 7/2
Dundalk 1-0 Riga FC
Injured: Jordan Flores.
Injured: Olegs Laizans, Antons Kurakins, Arturs Karasausks, Ivans Lukjanovs, Minori Sato, Kevin Berigaud.
Doubtful: Felipe Brisola.
Suspended: Stefan Panic.