Dundalk boss Filippo Giovagnoli believes Thursday’s game against Sheriff Tiraspol can change the fortunes of the club’s season and turn it into an historic one.
It has been largely a year to forget at Oriel Park but victory at Sheriff Stadium this week (kick-off 7pm Irish time) would leave the Lilywhites just 90 minutes away from a return to the Europa League group stages with a home tie to follow against either KÍ Klaksvik from the Faroe Islands or Dynamo Tbilisi of Georgia.
While not looking too far ahead, Giovagnoli is well aware of the implications winning in Moldova could have on the club.
“It’s huge,” he said.
“We have to be honest, this is the game that can change a season. It can make this season unbelievable for them. Not for us because we’re only here a month but for them it can be an historic game.
“We know that but we cannot panic. We have to stay focused and prepare well,” said the Italian.
That said, the 49-year-old has been busy studying Zoran Zekić’s side and is well aware that they will get nothing easy in Tiraspol this week.
“We’ve watched many of their games already and they’re a very good team,” he said.
“Individually they’re really good. Every player is good technically but I think they’re a little bit of a different team to when they play in Europe compared to their own league so we’ll have to see what our game plan is. We are preparing and we have an idea of what to do there of course. I can’t say too much about it because I know they’ll read stuff but this is going to be a real challenge but it’ll be nice to face them because we can see where we’re at as well.”
Opposition anaylst Shane Keegan commented at the weekend that Sheriff were similar in standards to Slovenian outfit NK Celje, who beat Dundalk 3-0 in the Champions League last month but Giovagnoli – who replaced Vinny Perth in the wake of that defeat – has no doubt that the Moldovans are a better side.
“I think that Sheriff are much better than Celje,” he said.
“I don’t know about the style. I watched Celje a little bit but Sheriff are much, much better. They’re a different group of players and more talented. They have many attacking players who are really talented.
“I don’t think Celje has the same quality as them but it’s going to be a different game I feel. I don’t know what the situation was before when they played Celje but I know what the situation is right now and to be honest I am confident that we’re going to perform.”
Striker Anatole Abang, who was sent off against Qarabag in Sheriff’s Champions League defeat last month, departed the club last month having scored five and assisted three goals in the club’s opening eight league games this season. While he will be a miss, Giovagnoli said Sheriff had other players capable of stepping up.
“Abang is a really good player but now they’ll bring in some short strikers who are really technical so they’ll change something. They are really dangerous.
“Abang was, of course, a really important player for them but now they’re changing a little bit how they play and combine. They’ll still be dangerous.”
While Sheriff have won 10 matches from 10 at the start of this season domestically and conceded just twice, Giovagnoli feels they are a different proposition in Europe.
“In the league every year for them is a home run. They do what they want. They play as they want and they play with real confidence.
“In Europe I saw a different team I have to be honest. I watched the Qarabag and Fola Esch games and they’re different so let’s see how they play on Thursday. I think they’re going to respect us and if they don’t that’s better for us.”
With Andy Boyle suspended following his harsh dismissal in Andorra, Giovagnoli will be forced into at least one change for the match in Moldova but he insists no player can take their starting place for granted.
“We have players that can play in that position,” he said of the centre-half’s absence.
“Boyle was doing really well but our squad allows us to change someone if we need to. I decide who plays so nobody’s spot is a given. We train hard and what they do on the pitch tells me who is going to play.”
A welcome boost for Dundalk will be the return of Patrick McEleney. Josh Gatt has also overcome a cold but Dane Massey remains sidelined.
On McEleney, Giovagnoli said: “We have to see who we’re going to bring but the good news is that McEleney is healthy. That’s a good thing for the squad to have Pat healthy. We know his quality so I’m really happy that he’s back.”
Meanwhile, Dundalk have been drawn away to Bohemians in the quarter-finals of the FAI Cup. The tie will take place at Dalymount Park on the weekend ending November 15th.