Dave Donnelly reports from the Aviva Stadium
Dundalk put a lid on a year to remember, for good and for bad, on Thursday night as they were beaten 4-2 by Arsenal in an entertaining encounter in Dublin 4.
The Lilywhites, fresh from 120 minutes at the same venue on Sunday evening as they lifted the FAI Cup to the same scoreline, gave it all they had against a star-studded visiting team.
The £72 million-pound man Nicolas Pépé was lively, but didn’t find the target, but as from Eddie Nketiah, Mohamed Elneny, Joe Willock and Folarin Balogun proved enough for Arsenal.
Dundalk trailed by just a goal into the final quarter, a fine Jordan Flores strike adding to the Puskas nominee’s growing highlight reel, while Sean Hoare bagged a late consolation.
In truth, it looked a bridge too far for a Dundalk side who lost Greg Sloggett before kick-off and David McMillan after half time to endurance injuries.
There was more of the attacking vivre of old from the Lilywhites, though they will be disappointed they couldn’t create more during the periods they were on top.
And just as it was when the sides met in London last month, it was a defensive mistake that led to Arsenal opening the scoring, rather than any invention on the part of the visitors.
Andy Boyle laboured pass out of defence was easily picked off by Nketiah and, with just Gary Rogers to beat, the Englishman dinked the ball delicately over the keeper and into the net.
The Lilywhites reacted well to the concession and would enjoy their most fruitful spell of the game in its immediate aftermath.
One sustained period of possession in the final third eventually led to the ball sitting up for Chris Shields, but the captain couldn’t get his foot over the ball and he sliced the ball over.
The Gunners were at their clinical best two minutes later as midfielder Elneny, who isn’t noted for his goalscoring, unleashed a wonderstrike.
Having been camped in their own box, Dundalk were too slow in pressing the Egyptian on the edge of the box and he punished them without a thunderous effort that flew into the top corner.
Nicolas Pépé should have at least forced Rogers into a save moments later as the lively Emile Smith-Rowe teed him up in the box, but he leaned back and blasted his shot over.
It looked set to be a long night for the Lilywhites to close out their season but, moments after that Pépé miss, the ball was in the net at the other end.
It was pure desire from Flores to beat Pépé to the ball in the centre of the park and he exchanged a quick one-two with Michael Duffy before blasting a low shot past the helpless Runar Runarsson.
Arsenal continued to dictate the tempo and eke out chances but were restricted to shooting from distance, with Rogers comfortably turning efforts from Cédric and Ainsley Maitland-Niles behind.
And Dundalk had a big chance to go into the sheds on level pegging as Patrick McEleney’s cross found Darragh Leahy at the back post, but Callum Chambers did enough to turn his shot behind.
The second half was less eventful as many changes suck out the momentum, though Rogers did have to be at his best to palm away a well-struck Soares free kick just past the hour.
Arsenal always looked to have an extra gear, and Willock restored their two-goal lead as he rounded off a slick passing move from close range.
More intricate passing ten minutes from time saw Pépé draw the defence inside to make space for sub Folarin Balogun to sweep home past the despairing Rogers.
Still there was time for more goals as Stefan Colovic swung in a free kick from the right and Hoare glanced a beautifully-taken header into the bottom corner of Runarsson’s net.
Dundalk: Gary Rogers; Sean Hoare, Andy Boyle (Brian Gartland ), Daniel Cleary; Sean Gannon (John Mountney 54), Chris Shields, Jordan Flores, Darragh Leahy; Patrick McEleney (Stefan Colovic 77), Michael Duffy (Jamie Wynne 77), David McMillan (Daniel Kelly 54).
Subs not used: Aaron McCarey (gk), Jimmy Corcoran (gk), Brian Gartland, Cameron Dummigan, Greg Sloggett.
Booked: Andy Boyle (10), John Mountney (61), Daniel Cleary (70), Chris Shields (77), Daniel Kelly (82).
Arsenal: Runar Runarsson; Callum Chambers, Pablo Mari, Shkodran Mustafi, Cédric Soares; Mohamed Elneny (Dani Ceballos 62), Joe Willock (Miguel Azeez 83), Emile Smith-Rowe (Ben Cottrell 77); Nicolas Pepe, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Eddie Nketiah (Folarin Balogun 62).
Subs not used: Matt Macey (gk), Karl Hein (gk), Rob Holding, Bukayo Sako.
Booked: Cédric Soares (28), Joe Willock (30).
Referee: Ivan Bebek (Croatia).
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