Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Shorn of five first-teamers, AEK Larnaca still won the tactical battle against hosts Dundalk. Playing with a heavily depleted deck, novice manager Andoni Iraola outmatched Stephen Kenny on his first night in football management. Level ahead of Thursday’s second leg in Cyprus, the Lilywhites will struggle to succeed where Cork City have failed before them.
Larnaca’s third Spanish manager in five years, Iraola fielded six fellow countrymen from the start at Oriel Park. Any presumed Iberian influence, however, was not immediately evident in their style of play. As Cork discovered in defeat last year, the Cypriots go direct to a burly striker at the earliest opportunity. And, in the absence of the formidable Florian Taulemesse, Australian international Apostolos Giannou fitted that bill perfectly.
Giannou proved an excellent deputy, regularly besting Dundalk’s centre-backs in one-on-one battle. The striker’s knock-downs and lay-offs posed continual problems for Kenny’s side. And even when Dundalk won the first ball, they invariably lost the second. The headless abandon of Robbie Benson saw to that.
The tendency of Benson to play well in advance of midfield partner Chris Shields is nothing new. Positionally disciplined, the shrewd Shields gives Benson license to unleash his third-man runs. Against weaker Irish opposition, set up solely to deny Dundalk, Shields can usually stem the counterattacking tide alone. Against an organised and compact Larnaca side, however, it was another story.
Benson did not limit his over-eagerness to the attacking phase either. The midfielder also regularly ran way out of position to press deep-lying playmaker Jorge Larena. Kenny, as ever, instructed his side to squeeze the opposition high up the pitch. Only too happy to go long, Larnaca rendered this tactic pointless.
Vertical passes, arced into the inside-left channel, were the order of the day. And debutant Mikel Gonzalez, a ball-playing centre-back, was their prime mover. Ivan Trickovksi almost converted one such pass in the 7th minute. That move, unsurprisingly, started with Larnaca winning a second ball. Dundalk’s high defensive line was pierced, and not for the last time either.
In fact, were it not for the responsibility shown by Jamie McGrath, the tie could have been settled by half-time. The number-10 tracked back to execute two vital saving challenges in the first-half. One, required to stop right-back Igor Silva in his dribbling tracks, proved particularly important.
Evoking memories of the freedom Michael Duffy afforded Rosenborg’s Vegar Hedenstad last year, Silva also instigated Larnaca’s biggest first-half opportunity. With Duffy caught ahead of the ball, and Benson caught flat-footed, the Brazilian found Giannou in the box. Joan Tomás momentarily escaped Sean Hoare to collect the resultant cutback, but Hoare recovered with a redemptive last-ditch block.
Dangerous in attack and unstressed by the Dundalk press, Larnaca impressed off the ball, too. First, Trickovski joined Giannou in pressing the Lilywhites centre-backs. The hosts, therefore, were forced wide, where the Cypriots duly closed down both Hoare and Dane Massey with relentless intensity. At the same time, Trickovski then dropped back to occupy Shields, leaving the Dundalk full-backs with no realistic short passing options.
Possession football proving nigh-on impossible, Dundalk duly turned to the direct route themselves. Drifting into the half-space behind Hector Hevel, craftsman-in-chief McGrath received very little service into feet. Instead, the long ball to striker Patrick Hoban looked the likeliest route to goal.
Channel-balls intended for Duffy and Dylan Connolly were also tried aplenty, but Larnaca quickly transitioned into a deep-lying defensive block to close that avenue. Marked by stand-in left-back Thomas Ioannou, who rarely features for Larnaca, Connolly simply did not do enough.
Duffy, on the other hand, rarely disappoints. Denied space to run into, the winger instead relied on Hoban’s headers to tee up his best moments. Both Silva and Larena proved dangerously willing to let the Northern Irishman cut inside onto his stronger right foot. Only the woodwork behind goalkeeper Tono Ramirez spared their shared blushes.
Playing in their first competitive game since May, Larnaca predictably tired late on. Tank empty, and robbed of their rapier-quick defensive transitions, the Cypriot defence suddenly looked vulnerable. Channel balls played to Duffy, in behind Silva, finally began to bear fruit. But, although the winger twice tested Ramirez, a clear-cut chance eluded him.
Larnaca created two, however, before their legs filled with lead. Seven of Dundalk’s 12 league concessions have stemmed from set-pieces, and quite how Giannou failed to convert one from point-blank range is anyone’s guess.
Space either side of Shields remained unfilled, too. Hevel popped up free in the inside-left pocket on the hour-mark, and his cross found Acorán unmarked at the back post. But Iraola may come to rue the Spaniard’s potentially costly miss.
No away goal, then, for the former Bilbao stalwart on his first night in the job. But, after ending Dundalk’s mammoth winning run with an impressively cohesive team performance, Iraola is surely the happier of the two managers. Kenny, who boasts a solid away record in Europe, requires another big road performance next Thursday; one of this magnitude simply will not do.
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