For 40 Trondheim minutes, Dundalk’s affluent hosts had no answer to Stephen Kenny’s best-laid plans.
Canny Kenny’s compact approach
The Lilywhites manager correctly anticipated a more positive second-leg approach from the reigning Eliteserien champions, and set his side up accordingly.
Minded to nullify Rosenborg’s attacking-midfield quartet, Kenny bravely reduced their effective playing area with an ultra-high defensive-line. Buttressed by strict central-midfield man-marking, this defensive strategy boasted the added benefit of pushing target-man Nicklas Bendtner away from goal.
Notwithstanding the Danish striker’s complete lack of threat-in-behind, the gaping chasm between Dundalk’s back-four, and goalkeeper Gary Rogers, continually tempted the through-ball.
But, with Patrick McEleney assiduously staying goalside of Anders Konradsen at all times, and Chris Shields and Robbie Benson following their men into strange territory, opportunities to attempt them were rare.
Only once, in that promising opening 40-minute spell, did the brilliantly-nicknamed Troll Children complete one. Serbian attacker Milan Jevtovic was its recipient, but his low cross was ultimately foiled by a well-positioned Sean Gannon.
This successful stifling of Rosenborg’s early attacking efforts also owed much to the home side’s ineffectual build-up play. With Konradsen unable to escape McEleney, and both full-backs pressed as soon as they received possession, Kare Ingebrigtsen’s side relied on their centre-backs to initiate attacks.
Unfortunately for both Tore Reginiussen, and Jorgen Skjelvik, Dundalk striker David McMillan had the bit between his teeth. Dutifully shuttling laterally to hassle both, and regularly chasing back when either carried the ball forward, the former UCD striker put in a fearsome off-the-ball shift.
Given that Ingebrigtsen’s inept zonal-marking system had already coughed up the necessary away-goal, the Lilywhites looked favourites at that 40-minute mark. But, such a mentally- and physically-demanding strategy is difficult to maintain — even for the League of Ireland’s fittest side.
The tide turns
Vegar Hedenstad, who escaped Michael Duffy to instigate both of Rosenborg’s open-play, first-leg, chances, struck first. After taking a short throw-in, the marauding full-back ghosted past a sleeping Duffy to collect Fredrik Midtsjo’s wall-pass and draw the first of several important Niclas Vemmelund blocks.
Another loss of concentration — this time collective-in-nature — would restore parity just sixty seconds later. Birker Meling’s hit-and-hope clearance caught a misshapen Dundalk on the hop, but several subsequent poor decisions converted that confusion into a concession.
Up until that point, Vemmelund had been the man tasked with getting tight to a backward-running Bendtner — a task that the Dane had performed with aplomb. This time, however, covering defender Brian Gartland decided to follow the former Arsenal striker out, despite having no apparent hope of getting there first.
The resultant chasm that Gartland’s jaunt created in the Dundalk defence was rendered more urgent by Bendtner’s deft flick, and Mike Jensen’s clever run in behind Shields.
Vemmelund and Gannon narrowed the gap quickly, but the former fatally chose to half-heartedly press Jensen, rather than back-off to provide cover for his blind-sided full-back.
Gartland The Infallible
Of course, neither Gannon, nor Vemmelund, would have been tested in such a manner were it not for the impetuousness of Gartland.
Also culpable for Reginiussen’s away-goal in Oriel Park, the Dublin native continually costs Dundalk goals in Europe — and yet appears impervious to criticism from a presumably friendly, and certainly Dublin-centric, punditry cohort.
Flinging himself on the ground early in the second-half, and allowing Midtsjo to skip past him and draw another big Vemmelund block did not draw Stuart Byrne’s ire on RTÉ.
And even though Gartland’s front-foot failings were followed by more penalty-box ineptitude for Vilhjalmsson’s winner, Byrne bizarrely struggled to pick his capital-city colleague out as the culprit.
Getting his name on the scoresheet regularly may obscure some media observers’ abilities to judge Gartland on his defensive merits. For this particular observer, the jury is in — Dundalk need a significant upgrade on the error-prone 30-year-old if they wish to compete in Europe again.
McMillan and co. tire…and Rosenborg profit
Meanwhile, Rosenborg’s central-defenders were showing him how it’s done. With McMillan absolutely out on his feet, at least from the hour-mark, Reginiussen and Skjelvik now had free-reign to advance in possession — and cause havoc.
Although Kenny introduced Stephen O’Donnell mere moments after Reginiussen’s dangerous dribble to the edge of the Dundalk area, this was a misdiagnosis of the problem from the Dundalk head-honcho.
The visitors’ central-midfield trio was still tasked with a man-marking remit, often following the likes of Jensen and Midtsjo into their own defensive-line, and so were not free to arrest these frequent centre-back sorties.
In fact, it was McMillan, who eventually bowed out for Ciaran Kilduff in extra-time, that needed a fresh-legged replacement, if this tide was to be effectively stemmed.
A Skjelvik dribble won the 70th-minute free-kick from which Gartland again lost a mishitting Reginiussen. And, two minutes before Vilhjalmsson’s winner, the centre-back again advanced untracked to slam a long-range effort just wide.
Eventually, Dundalk’s relatively leaden legs told, as both Rosenborg full-backs combined to instigate the Icelandic midfielder’s killer goal.
It was a dribble from left-back Meling, who left a spent John Mountney for dead, that won the fatal throw-in. And, from it’s second-phase, a free Hedenstad swung in the delivery that a static Gartland failed to nod away.
Dundalk themselves demonstrated the value of a defender popping up in unexpected places, deep in extra-time, when a Gartland header teed up Kilduff to force a wonderful Anders Hansen save — Dundalk’s only open-play chance of the game.
That what-if served only to underline the clear narrative to take away from this one: namely, that Rosenborg’s defenders were the key to overcoming Kenny’s canny nullification strategy; while Dundalk’s, on the other hand — Vemmelund excepted — simply let the side down.
You can follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter, @alanob2112