Niall Newberry reports from the Tehelne Pole Stadium in Bratislava
Dundalk began their pursuit of the Europa League group stages with a 1-0 defeat in the Slovakian rain against Slovan Bratislava in their third qualifying round first-leg tie on Wednesday night.
David Holman’s goal in the 86th minute was all that could separate the sides, but the League of Ireland champions will be confident of getting a result in the return leg at Tallaght Stadium next week having created some brilliant chances against what looked to be a nervous Slovan team.
The big news before kick-off was the omission of Patrick McEleney, who dropped to the bench in place of John Mountney with Jamie McGrath slotting into the number ten role behind Patrick Hoban.
Sean Murray also came into the midfield in place of Sean Hoare as head coach Vinny Perth made two changes from last week’s elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Qarabag FK.
This first-leg encounter was a slow burner with both teams happy enough just to feel each other out in the opening stages, although the hosts looked nervous and committed several needless fouls.
In what was close to 30-degree heat, Slovan had the game’s first chance when the lively Moha Rharsalla worked some magic before his deflected shot went straight into the arms of Gary Rogers.
The hosts, who sacked their manager after their Champions League failure, should have went ahead when Brazilian winger Rafael Ratao’s cross just evaded Slovan’s star man up front, Andraz Sporar.
Slovan’s record signing at €2m – who had been quiet – curled his shot just over moments after that
Dundalk were containing the Slovakians well and had chances of their own on the half-hour mark.
John Mountney played a lovely pass into the path of Michael Duffy, who forced a good save out of Dominik Greif and the Slovan stopper had to save again from Andy Boyle’s header from the corner.
The game was really opening up at this point and some lovely play from the hosts ended with Marin Ljubicic dragging a shot wide, while Vernon De Marco headed wide from Holman’s free-kick.
Slovan ended the half strongly and Holman’s corner was pushed away by Rogers and almost fell straight into the path of Myenty Abena just after Moha again went relatively close from distance.
The second half started in the same vein as the first finished with both teams having good chances.
Much of the Tehelne Pole stadium thought Slovan had taken the lead after Ratao, Sporar and finally Holman all had efforts in quick succession after Dundalk had failed to clear their lines three times.
The third and last effort in that sequence saw the Hungarian international player hit the side-netting.
De Marco then headed over from a corner before Dundalk had a brilliant chance to take the lead. McGrath did magnificently to pull the ball back for Sean Murray, who also found the side-netting.
The Lilywhites again should have scored when Hoban did well to tee up McGrath, who turned in space before shooting wide as one began to wonder if Perth’s side would rue these missed chances.
At the other end, Rogers had to be on hand to produce an excellent save to deny Sporar’s shot before the Bratislava side had not one, but two penalty appeals turned down in quick succession.
As the rain began to pelt from the sky, Dundalk had to weather a different kind of storm and Rogers made a world-class reflex save to keep out Abena’s effort after Holman had sent in the free-kick.
Slovan continued to press and Ljubicic’s goal-bound shot was crucially blocked by Daniel Cleary before Holman shot straight into the arms of Rogers as the match headed into its closing stages.
Dundalk’s resistance was finally broken four minutes from time when substitute Dejan Drazic crashed an effort off the woodwork only for that man Holman to score from the rebound.
The visitors came agonisingly close to that precious equaliser and away goal in stoppage-time as Greif had to tip Mountney’s header onto the crossbar following a cross from the superb McGrath.
Slovan Bratislava: Dominik Greif; Jurij Medvedev, Myenty Abena, Vasil Bozhikov, Vernon De Marco; Marin Ljubicic, Joeri de Kamps; Rafael Ratao (Dejan Drazic 67), David Holman, Moha Rharsalla (Erik Daniel 77); Andraz Sporar (Aleksandar Cavric 80).
Subs not used: Michal Sulla, Mitch Apau, Ibrahim Rabiu, Nono Villar.
Booked: Vernon De Marco (43), Andraz Sporar (75).
Dundalk: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Daniel Cleary, Andy Boyle, Dane Massey; Chris Shields, Sean Murray (Patrick McEleney 70); John Mountney, Jamie McGrath, Michael Duffy (Daniel Kelly 88); Patrick Hoban (Cameron Dummigan 87).
Subs not used: Aaron McCarey, Brian Gartland, Sean Hoare, Georgie Kelly.
Referee: Frank Schneider (France).
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Gary Rogers (Dundalk).