From Caoimhin Reilly in Alkmaar
Dundalk earned a superb draw on their debut in the Europa League having battled back from a goal down and a man down to earn a superb away point against AZ Alkmaar.
Ciaran Kilduff’s 89th minute header rescued a point as the Lilywhites opened their Group D campaign with a deserved share of the spoils. AZ had opened the scoring on the hour mark through Stijn Wuytens, although the unfortunate midfielder knew little about it having been flattened by the advancing Gary Rogers.
The Dutchman connected with Ron Vlaar’s diagonal lob to the edge of the area seconds before the Dundalk ‘keeper arrived on the scene. The ball looped into the net despite the attentions of Andy Boyle. However, by the time that the ball hit the net, Wuytens was unconscious. AZ medical staff and players alike appeared distraught as the midfielder was carried off the pitch.
The Lilywhites’ then had Stephen O’Donnell dismissed harshly with 19 minutes to go. Kilduff though gained Stephen Kenny’s men a point that they completely merited. He converted Daryl Horgan’s inviting free-kick to send the 800 travelling Lilywhites into raptures.
Dundalk gave as good as they got throughout the game particularly in the first-half. Although, AZ winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh cut in and rattled the post in the second minute, it was the Lilywhites who enjoyed the more meaningful attacking ventures.
The County Louth men went toe-to-toe with their more illustrious hosts in midfield, and when their centre-field trio got possession, David McMillan was the willing outlet. The Dubliner gave Vlaar a testing time of it throughout, out-pacing and out-witting the veteran Dutchman on two obvious occasions in the opening period.
The second of which should have led to the opener. However, McMillan’s left-footed shot was weak and easily gathered by AZ ‘keeper Sergio Rochet.
Indeed, AZ didn’t appear to be any better technically than their Irish counterparts, although when they attacked, through Jahanbakhsh in particular, the home fans responded.
If John van den Brom’s side were to score, the man from Iran looked likely to be the source. The winger’s tendency to alter his positioning from flank-to-flank meant that Dundalk were unable to shackle him for a consistent period.
As the first half progressed, Dundalk grew in belief that they belong at this level. Daryl Horgan had a storming performance, cutting inside onto his right-foot and running rapidly at the defenders on several occasions. AZ were petrified of the Galweigan. His link-up play with McMillan was excellent.
The pair combined wonderfully in the 33rd minute. McMillan picked up a pass from O’Donnell, before playing a lofted ball for Horgan to latch onto with the right-back left in his wake. The winger easily went by Vlaar’s ginger challenge in the penalty area. However his final touch was too heavy meaning that Rochet was able to smother his shot.
Horgan and Patrick McEleney both had decent efforts on goal in the latter minutes of the half but all of Dundalk’s excellent play was almost undone just prior to half-time.
Following a period of penalty area pinball, the ball fell to the feet of striker Fred Friday who finished past Gary Rogers. Brian Gartland appeared hysterical only for the assistant referee to adjudge Friday to have been in an offside position – AZ were whistled off the pitch by their own fans at the break.
The home side re-entered the fray with purpose. Vlaar fired an early shot wide. In their next attack Ronan Finn hacked down Ridgeciano Haps. Dabney Souza’s deep delivery was sent goalwards by Derrick Luckassen, only for Sean Gannon to somehow clear off the line as the Lilywhites survived.
Although Dundalk regained their composure in possession, AZ were certainly not as generous defensively as they had been in the opening 45 minutes. The goal that they had been threatening arrived in the 60th minute, although the celebrations were very muted following the injury to Stijn Wuytens.
From that point onwards it was a struggle for the Lilywhites. Despite dominating the first-half, the Lilywhites will rue their inability to convert their chances. AZ where more economic in the offensive department, and they possibly could have extended their lead, especially following O’Donnell’s dismissal.
O’Donnell, combative as ever, launched himself into a challenge despite already being cautioned by the Maltese referee Clayton Pisani. Although his tackle wasn’t malicious, the dramatic fall from Ridgeciano Haps was enough for the officials to feel that O’Donnell warranted a second yellow card. O’Donnell had given the performance of his life prior to his sending-off.
It took a dramatic goal line clearance from Andy Boyle three minutes from full-time to preserve the Lilywhites’ hope of rescuing a point. And the Lilywhites’ did indeed earn that point, along with a €120,000 bonus for the draw, as stoppage time approached.
Chris Shields was fouled on the left-wing and from the set-piece delivery from Horgan, Kilduff nodded home.
AZ stampeded towards Dundalk’s goal in the nine injury-time minutes, with Shields, Gartland and Boyle heroic in defending their area. After several close shaves, the referee finally signalled full-time as Dundalk become the first Irish side to gain a point from a group stage encounter in European competition.
AZ: Sergio Rochet; Mattias Johansson, Rens van Eijden, Ron Vlaar ©, Ridgeciano Haps; Derrick Luckassen, Stijn Wuytens; Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Illias Bel Hassani 75), Joris van Overeem, Dabney Souza; Fred Friday (Wout Weghorst 55).
Subs not used: Nick Olij (gk), Ben Rienstra, Thomas Ouwejan, Levi Garcia, Fernando Lewis
Booked: Mattias Johansson (87)
Dundalk FC: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland, Andy Boyle, Dane Massey; Ronan Finn, Stephen O’Donnell; John Mountney (Robbie Benson 77), Patrick McEleney (Ciaran Kilduff 84), Daryl Horgan; David McMillan (Chris Shields 75).
Subs not used: Gabriel Sava (gk), Shane Grimes, Paddy Barrett, Dean Shiels.
Booked: Stephen O’Donnell (45)
Sent-off: Stephen O’Donnell (71)
Referee: Clayton Pisani (MLT)
Attendance: 11,000 (est.)
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Brian Gartland (Dundalk FC)