Eliminated from the Champions League last week, Dundalk begin their quest for the Europa League group stages with a third qualifying round tie against Slovan Bratislava, the first leg of which takes place at the Tehelne Pole Stadium on Wednesday night (kick-off 7.15pm Irish time).
The Slovakian champions are seemingly in turmoil following the dismissal of manager Martin Sevela, who was unceremoniously sacked following their early exit from the Champions League last month.
Jan Kozak has stepped in on a caretaker basis, guiding the club to three wins from three in the league as well as recording a 4-1 aggregate win over Kosovan side Feronikeli in the Europa League.
Dundalk head coach Vinny Perth is nonetheless expecting a difficult assignment against a side that won its domestic championship by 17 points last term and will be approaching this tie with caution.
“Slovan are a top side and we have to be pragmatic away from home and be very careful,” said Perth.
“They’ve got some extremely powerful forwards; they attack with real pace and we’ve got to be mindful of their quality going forward.
“Like all European games, there’s nights where teams have a lot of the ball so we have to adapt to that.
“It’s not something that we’d be normally used to but at the same time, we believe in our players and we believe they can make a mark on this game which will be a very difficult game.
“We’ve got to go up a level to be able to compete, but we’re very hopeful.”
Perth and his 22-man squad got a feel of Slovan’s new state of the art 22,500 capacity stadium on Tuesday evening during their last training session before they take to the same field on Wednesday.
“It’s a wonderful venue and it is full credit to the government, that partially funded this stadium, so it’s a credit to everybody.
“These are stadiums that people of our level aspire to have and it’s a wonderful venue in what has to be said, is a beautiful city.”
Speaking to assembled members of both the Irish and Slovakian media before that session at Tehelne Pole, he went on to outline what he believes to be the main threats within the Slovan side.
“I think their front three of Holman, Sporar and Moha would be players we would consider [as a threat].
“They’re very dynamic and people who would excite us to watch and we’ll have to be at our very best to stop them playing but also, they have many more like Nono and Ratao.
“They have a lot of very strong attacking players in their side and they’re the ones that stand out to us.
“They’re built on a good foundation in their back four whether it’s Ljubicic playing in midfield as well, so they’re a very strong side and people we very much respect.”
The bad news for Dundalk is that Slovan’s star player and record signing Andraz Sporar – who had been a doubt – looks set to play but defender Kenan Bajric is unlikely to feature according to Kozak.
The winners of this two-legged affair will come up against either PAOK of Greece or Dutch giants Ajax – Champions League semi-finalists last season – in the play-off round, but Perth insists neither his Dundalk side or indeed Slovan for that matter will be looking beyond their next encounter.
“People will be excited by who’s waiting in the next round, but I think both teams will just focus on the challenge ahead.
“For us, we want to be achieving what clubs like Slovan Bratslava have achieved over the last number of years and be in play-offs or at least trying to qualify for group stages.
“That’s our aim and this is just another stepping stone towards that and hopefully we can achieve them goals over the next number of years.
“This is great experience for us as players and as a club, it puts us closer to where our goal is ultimately over the next number of years.”
The Dundalk head coach is also pleased with his side’s preparation after they bowed out of the Champions League last week, losing 3-0 to Azerbaijani powerhouse Qarabag in the Baku heat.
“The players have prepared really well. They’ve got here in good time and at this stage, we’re just looking to be on the pitch and start training.
“They’re eager to get on with it, they’re in good spirits at the moment and just looking forward to training. We feel like we’re in a good place at the moment.”
Dundalk have no fresh injury concerns heading into this tie with the injured Robbie Benson, Jordan Flores and Stephen Folan the only notable absentees from the squad that’s travelled to Bratislava.
Referee: Frank Schneider (France).
This will be the third time that Slovan Bratislava have faced League of Ireland opposition. They knocked St Patrick’s Athletic and UCD out of this very competition in 1996 and 2015 respectively.
Dundalk haven’t lost the first leg of any of their previous five European ties. Their last first-leg defeat came against Legia Warsaw, who beat Dundalk in the Champions League play-off round in 2016.
Slovan may be a club steeped in European history, but Dundalk are currently higher in the UEFA club rankings. The Lilywhites are 126th as of now, while Slovan find themselves 38 places lower in 164th.
Slovan Bratislava 2/5; Draw 3/1; Dundalk 7/1
Slovan Bratislava 2-2 Dundalk
Doubtful: Kenan Bajric.
Injured: Robbie Benson, Jordan Flores, Stephen Folan.