Dundalk were handed the toughest draw possible after being drawn to face NK Celje in the first qualifying round of the Champions League.
While the Slovenian champions were drawn at home, the game will take place at the Szusza Ferenc Stadium in Újpest, 10km north of Budapest in Hungary on August 19th due to travel restrictions as a result of Covid-19.
Dusan Kosic’s side won the Slovenian PrvaLiga for the first time in their history last month and are a real up and coming team who arguably pose a tougher test for the Lilywhites than their other potential opponents in the draw, KuPS, Flora Tallinn or KI Klaksvik.
Celje only wrapped up their season on July 22nd and return to action this Wednesday when they host Mura. They will also travel to play Aluminij on Saturday before the clash with Dundalk.
Quite a lot of investment has been put into the club in recent years with a new stadium completed in 2008. Their assistant Robert Koren would be well known to fans of English football having played in the Premier League for both West Brom and Hull City in a career which also saw him win 61 caps for his country, including games at the 2010 World Cup.
While there are no household names in the Celje side, their captain Jure Travner did have brief spells at Watford, St Mirren and Reading – playing alongside former Dundalk player Michael Hector at the latter in 2015.
Their two major danger men are striker Dario Vizinger who scored 23 goals last season and attacking midfielder Mitja Lotric who chipped in with 18. Between them the pair also had 23 assists and were well supported by left winger Luka Kerin who scored nine goals and had eight assists.
This will be Celje’s first venture into Europe since 2016 when they lost 4-1 on aggregate to Polish side Slask Wroclaw but having won their first league title last month Europe has now become a major focus for them.
The prize for the winners will be a home tie in the second qualifying round on August 25th against either Molde of Norway or KuPS of Finland. As both countries are on the Government’s Green List, that game could proceed at Oriel Park.
Meanwhile, manager Vinny Perth admitted his side’s display in losing 2-1 to Bohemians on Friday night was not good enough. The result saw Dundalk drop to third in the table, now eight points adrift of Shamrock Rovers, and while the 44-year-old didn’t officially give up on the title he has encouraged his side to focus on Europe in the weeks ahead.
“We started the game quite well but we just haven’t defended then for a 15 or 20 minute spell which is so unlike us,” said Perth.
“The game went against us then because the goal gave them something to hang on to and then they got the second so we had to make changes. We changed the shape a little bit and got Stefan on the ball a lot more and we got back into the game. At half-time I was comfortable we had enough about us to at least get back into it albeit we were always vulnerable to a counter attack from them at all times. It was just a disappointing night and very unlike Dundalk.
“They’ve been in worse situations than this but there’s a big month ahead with European football as well. I think that’s all they need to focus on now and the games can look after themselves.”