Niall Newberry reports from Oriel Park
It was a frustrating European night for Dundalk on Wednesday at Oriel Park as they were held to a scoreless draw by Riga FC in the first leg of their Champions League first qualifying round tie.
Both sides had several chances but neither could make the breakthrough. However, it will be the Latvian double-winners that will be the far happier heading into next Wednesday’s second leg.
Dundalk opted to start with Daniel Cleary, who partnered Sean Hoare in defence while Dean Jarvis slotted in at left-back with the experienced duo of Brian Gartland and Dane Massey both benched.
Latvian international Olegs Laizans shook off an injury and started for Riga, but Brazilian midfielder Felipe Brisola didn’t recover from the knock he picked up in Monday afternoon’s training session.
Following a heated opening few minutes in which both sets of supporters were making their voices heard, Michael Duffy almost scored a cracking goal when his dipping volley flew just over the bar.
Dundalk threatened again when Duffy’s corner from the left was headed just over the top by the head of Hoare, who minutes later volleyed wide after doing well to control from Duffy’s free-kick.
Riga did have their chances as well and although Roger’s shot never looked likely to threaten Gary Rogers, the Dundalk goalkeeper did have to get down to save from a Laizans shot a minute later.
Dundalk frontman Patrick Hoban had two chances in quick succession before the interval, failing to turn home John Mountney’s low cross before heading over from a Jamie McGrath floated cross.
The Latvian champions almost caught Dundalk napping early in the second half with Roman Debelko – who scored at Oriel last year for Levadia Tallinn – curling an effort which had Rogers at full stretch.
Although the hosts were dominating possession, Riga were looking dangerous on the counter and Laizans – who has amassed 46 caps for Latvia – unleashed a shot which sailed well over the top.
McGrath moved to right-wing following the introduction of Robbie Benson and he almost put the Lilywhites in front just past the hour-mark when he teased and tormented the Riga defence, but his shot was saved by the legs of Roberts Ozols, cue a collective roar of approval from the Oriel faithful.
Riga should have grabbed a priceless away goal 15 minutes from time when Roger set the lively Joel Bopescu on his bike, but the Frenchman somehow pulled his effort wide – a real let-off for Dundalk.
Dundalk then pressed for a priceless goal that would see them take an advantage to Riga in seven days with Duffy fizzing a shot wide directly after Ozols has punched clear from Andy Boyle’s header.
It was truly end-to-end stuff at Oriel and substitute Deniss Rakels – once upon a time of Reading and Lech Poznan – fired over before Hoare headed straight at Ozols from Duffy’s corner at the other end.
Dundalk’s hearts were in their mouths in the last minute of stoppage-time when Riga were awarded a free on the edge of the box but, luckily for the Lilywhites, Rakels sent his effort wide of the post.
That was the last action of the match as Vinny Perth’s side failed to take any significant advantage into next week’s return leg, which will be played at the Skonto Stadium in the Latvian capital of Riga.
Dundalk: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Daniel Cleary, Sean Hoare, Dean Jarvis; Chris Shields (Andy Boyle 46), Patrick McEleney; John Mountney (Robbie Benson 58), Jamie McGrath (Daniel Kelly 80), Michael Duffy; Patrick Hoban.
Subs not used: Aaron McCarey (gk), Brian Gartland, Dane Massey, Georgie Kelly.
Booked: Dean Jarvis (90+2).
Riga FC: Roberts Ozols; Armands Petersons, Herdi Prenga, Antonijs Cernomordijs, Ritvars Rugins; Olegs Laizans, Tomislav Saric; Aleksejs Visnakovs, Roger (Deniss Rakels 79), Joel Bopesu; Roman Debelko.
Subs not used: Maksims Uvarenko (gk), Vladislavs Gabovs, Elvis Stuglis, Vladislavs Fjodorovs, Abdisalam Ibrahim, Kamil Bilinski.
Booked: Joel Bopescu (22), Roman Debelko (47), Tomislav Saric (87).
Referee: Peter Kralovic (Slovakia).
Attendance: 3,000 (estimate).
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Sean Hoare (Dundalk).