Three goals in less than four minutes undid Dundalk at the Etihad Stadium on Thursday night, as Arsenal turned on the style to run out 3-0 winners. The Lilywhites were outgunned by the Gunners, a brace from Joe Willock and a screamer from Nicolas Pépé doing the damage, in this Europa League Group B tie.
This was always going to be an uphill battle for the former League of Ireland Champions, their form hasn’t set the League of Ireland alight, so tackling one of Europe’s big boys was going to be a real step up in class. With one bookie giving odds of 60/1 ahead of the game, you get the picture.
Yet, Dundalk started well and were the first side to nearly land a punch as Michael Thierry Duffy teed up Patrick McEleney for a long range shot, which required a full stretch save from Icelandic custodian Runar Alex Runarsson.
Arsenal troubled Dundalk in wide positions and there was a growing sense as the half went on, that they would find a way through. Occasionally Arsenal moved the ball at breakneck speed and looked sure to catch out the Dundalk backs, but time and time again they stood firm.
Wasteful long-range efforts from Céderic Coares and Nicolas Pépé, spoke of a mounting frustration. Gary Rogers made a comfortable but important save from Joe Willock on 37 minutes when his shot deflected off a Dundalk defender. And when Eddie Nketieh couldn’t convert from a yard out on forty minutes, it seemed Dundalk’s goal led a charmed life.
Unfortunately, the Lilywhites couldn’t see the half out and two quick fire goals on the 42nd and 44th minute, would have had them going into the half time tunnel shell-shocked.
The opener came when Rogers couldn’t clear a corner with his fist and the ball spilled into the six yard box, Joe Willock was quickest to react.
It was Willock again for the second, and again his quick reactions helped. Cameron Dummigan gave the ball away with a bad pass and Arsenal countered at speed, but Dundalk kept their shape well and when Pépé shot from outside the box (when he probably should have passed) it spun off a Dundalk shin and into the path of Willock, who got in behind the Dundalk line with his first touch and made no mistake with his follow up shot.
If €79 million Pépé had looked unconvincing in the first half with wayward shooting and a corner that hit the side netting, he helped make amends with a world-class goal just after the restart.
With hardly thirty seconds of the second half gone, he rolled a crossed ball under the studs of his left boot and walloped it with his right into the top right corner of the Dundalk goal. The onlooking defenders and ‘keeper could only watch rooted to the spot. It was unstoppable.
If the first two goals flattered Arsenal, there was nothing anyone could have done to stop the third.
That was all the goals, in less than four minutes of game-time. Dundalk didn’t look likely to land a blow of their own. Perhaps their best chance was a free kick on 75 mins in shooting range, which Patrick Hoban put well over.
The second half was characterised by Arsenal toying with Dundalk down the wings, but also by heroic defending from the proud Louth men who denied Arsenal any further goals. There were lots of scary moments but Gartland, Boyle, Cleary, and later Hoare, were impressive at the back.
Patrick McEleney, one of Dundalk’s creative sparks, pulled up injured less than ten minutes after the restart and Filippo Giovagnoli would avail of all five subs in a twenty minute window; also whipping off Duffy, Murray, Shields and Cleary for fresh legs, a move which could have destabilised the squad – but to their credit, the new recruits took up the task of denying Arsenal expertly.
Dundalk fans might bemoan how the goals were conceded, but if anything, the quick-fire goals were a glimpse of what a team like Arsenal can do. It was a feat in itself limiting that threat for the vast majority of the game and not letting the dam burst. That they did so without committing any fouls and picked up zero bookings, a first for any side in the Europa league, is a testament to their discipline and work-rate.
The Lilywhites can turn to the important upcoming, if less glamourous, league match against St Patrick’s Athletic on Sunday with their heads held high.
Arsenal: Runar Alex Runarsson, Cédric Soares, Shkodran Mustafi (Dani Ceballos 60), Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Sead Kolasinac, Joe Willock, Mohamed Elney, Granit Xhaka (Kieran Tierney 74), Nicolas Pépé (Willian Borges da Silva 60), Eddie Nketieh ( Folarin Balogun 74), Reiss Nelson.
Subs not used: Karl Hein, Bukayo Saka, Thomas PArtey, Gabriel Martinelli, Bernd Leno, Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Dundalk FC: Gary Rogers, Brian Gartland, Daniel Cleary (Sean Hoare 53), Andy Boyle, Chris Shields (Sean Gannon 61), Sean Murray (Greg Sloggett 46), John Mountney, Patrick McEleney (Jordan Flores 53), Cameron Dummigan, Patrick Hoban, Micheal Duffy (Stefan Colovic 70).
Subs not used: Aaron McCarey, Nathah Oduwa, Darragh Leahy, Daniel Kelly, Nathan Oduwa, Jimmy Corcoran, David McMillian.
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Brian Gartland (Dundalk FC)