Vinny Perth will give Chris Shields every chance to prove his fitness for Dundalk’s crunch Champions League first qualifying round second leg tie away to Riga FC at Skonto Stadium on Wednesday (kick-off 5.30pm Irish time, live on eirSport).
The midfielder was substituted at half-time of last week’s 0-0 stalemate at Oriel Park after a sickening collision with team-mate Daniel Cleary just before the break.
Thankfully a scan revealed no fracture to the 28-year-old’s cheek bone and he returned to training at the weekend.
However, last season’s SSE Airtricity League Player of the Year has still to engage in physical action with Perth set to assess him further when the side train in Latvia on Tuesday night.
Asked about Shields on Sunday evening, the Dundalk head coach said: “His face is quite swollen so its one we’ll have to monitor.
“He was able to train today but he’s in no way, shape or form ready for contact so we’ll engage that over Tuesday’s training session and Wednesday.
“It’s going to be one of them where we’ve just got to be careful with him and monitor how it is.”
Perth is aware there is no player similar to Shields in his squad but feels Dundalk would be able to cope without their joint longest servant should he fail to make the starting 11.
“Orthodox number sixes is not an area that we’re blessed in but we’ve had Sean Hoare play there and we do believe Robbie Benson can play as a six as well in different stages so we’re not overly concerned by it.
“We’ve got real cover in the squad and we’ve had Dean Jarvis in there before as well so we’re in a good place in that position but we’re not ready to make a decision one way or the other until Wednesday morning.”
While Jordan Flores and Stephen Folan will both miss the trip to Latvia through injury, the Lilywhites have been boosted by the return of Sean Murray.
“Sean has trained this weekend,” confirmed Perth.
“He obviously struggled last week and wasn’t available but he has trained now so he is available for selection and that’s a massive boost for everybody in the club because he can obviously score goals and we may need him at some stage.”
While the 0-0 result in the first leg was deemed a disappointment to some, the fact Dundalk didn’t concede means away goals could be crucial for them. Perth has no doubt his side have the quality to find the net against Mihail Konevs’ team.
“We’ve got players who can score on big nights and we have to hope that they’re ready on Wednesday,” said the 42-year-old.
“We’re going over knowing that we’re going to have to raise our game from the other night but they’re going to have to raise their game as well and it’s whoever takes it to the highest level that will win the game.
“Away goals are a massive advantage to us now but we have to score them first.
“We obviously gave up a couple of half chances here and there but I don’t think we’d change anything about our general play for the first three quarters of the pitch.
“The game was what we expected it to be. We weren’t throwing out words in rhetoric before the game by saying it was a 50/50 game. Our final pass and final ball was just slightly off but that’s just something that happens and we probably didn’t get that little bit of luck around the box because one was spilled by the keeper, Pat Hoban and Sean Hoare were unlucky with headers and it was a great tackle on Pat from Sean Gannon’s pull back.
“On another night we could have scored one or two but equally we could have conceded an away goal but I think not conceding a goal is a big bonus for us and that was the big positive out of the night.”
Indeed, Perth believes playing away from home may actually suit his side.
“I think it’s no secret that we’ve found it difficult in Oriel Park on a lot of European nights. It seems to be a venue that teams in Europe find it a bit easier to stifle us.
“I certainly won’t disrespect Oriel but it is the type of pitch that can help teams shut up shop. We’ve experienced that with a lot of teams, even in the last number of weeks with Sligo, Pat’s and Waterford. It’s something we’re used to but Riga just did it well last week.
“You’d rather be playing this leg again at home in front of our own fans and everything that comes with it but playing away from home is not something we fear or ever feared.
“The players are really well prepared so I don’t see it being a big issue. Weather wise it will be very similar, time wise there’s a two hour difference but that’s not enough to make a difference and we’ll be there in good time. I think it’s a 50/50 tie again and it’s about whoever takes their chances on the night.
“It’s a big pitch and a good pitch out there and I think it will suit both teams to be fair because I think their attacking players will relish the more open space but so will ours and it could be a bit of a shoot-out.
“These can be special nights. I keep saying it but we shouldn’t take Champions League football for granted. It doesn’t happen every season and we must enjoy it while we have it.”
The prize for the winners is a home leg in the second qualifying round against either FK Partizani or Qarabag next week while the loser will be away to either BATE Borisov or Piast Gliwice.
Aside from the logistics of it being easier to prepare for a home tie next, Perth is hopeful his side are still in the Champions League come Wednesday night.
“Our focus has to be on winning this game first,” he said.
“Whether we win or lose we haven’t even looked at the opposition yet. We’ll have enough time between Wednesday night and Saturday morning when we start preparing for the next game so we’ll have a busy 48 hours but that’s what happens in Europe.
“Our whole focus is staying in this competition as long as we can because it makes life a lot easier for us.
“We’ve had some really difficult nights in Europe but we’ve had some great nights as well. What we must do is just embrace the night.
“The players seem ready for it. We’ve had an amazing training weekend and everybody is chomping at the bit. There’s no real sign of injury and if there is they are hiding it quite well.
“You don’t get easy games in the Champions League. Even last week in the Europa League, Cork went down to a side from Luxembourg whereas people would have said on paper that Cork were favourites. At this level you’re operating at the highest level and I think people realise that Riga are a top side after the other night.
“They’ve got a lot of good players but this is the level we want to be at and we’ll do everything in our power to get through it.”