Vinny Perth believes Wednesday’s opponents Qarabag are the best side Dundalk will have faced in his seven seasons at the club but hasn’t ruled out another Champions League upset.
The Lilywhites booked a date with the Azerbaijani champions – who have made the group stages of the Europa League in four of the last five seasons and the Champions League in the other – courtesy of a nail-biting 5-4 penalty shootout win over Riga FC in Skonto Stadium on Wednesday.
The stakes will now be upped when Qarabag come to Oriel Park this Wednesday night for a sold out game (kick-off 7.45pm, live on eirSport).
The draws for the next stage of the European competitions was made on Monday afternoon and the winners of the Dundalk v Qarabag tie will face APOEL of Cyprus or Montenegro’s Sutjeska in the third qualifying round.
The losers of Dundalk v Qarabag will then enter the third qualifying round of the Europa League against either Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia) or Feronikeli of Kosovo.
Asked about his thoughts on Gurban Gurbanov’s Qarabag side after training on Saturday, Perth said: “Qarabag are one of the best sides we’ve come across over the last seven years.
“Technically they’re extremely quick and a very technical side with lots of short passes and onetwos. They’re a very powerful team in that sense and completely different to Riga so it’s about having the highest level of concentration and not making silly errors. That’s really what is going to be the key against them,” he said.
The 42-year-old said that while not much was known about Qarabag in this part of Europe, they were a side to be admired.
“You look where they’ve come from and you can probably take inspiration from it,” he said.
“It’s a really difficult tie. They’re one of the most difficult sides we’ve ever had to face but it’s early in their season and you’d just hope that they’re not fully at it yet. Our players have always raised a level when they’ve needed to go to that next level so they’ve got to do it again.
“They’re very technical and fast players. They take up good positions and play a lot of onetouch football. They wouldn’t be a big side. They’d be quite small in general terms compared to the Riga side for argument’s sake. They’re not going to be powering in free kicks with men coming from everywhere. They’re going to play stuff short and get at you with little one-twos and combinations so that’s why we’re going to have to concentrate.”
While Perth admitted that Oriel Park didn’t always suit Dundalk against sides who shut up shop, like Riga did in the first qualifying round earlier this month, he is hopeful it can work in his side’s favour on Wednesday.
“Yeah, possibly,” he said.
“We fancy ourselves to score against most teams which is strange coming off our last two games which were 0-0 draws but we have created chances in those games and just not been clinical in the final third.
“I think we’ll definitely create chances against them. The pitch in Oriel may benefit us but I’ve been watching some of their games and they play on astro turf as well so they’re well used to it.
“I think Oriel will be an advantage in terms of the home crowd and it won’t be the most comfortable of environments they’ve ever been in so Oriel will definitely give us a chance,” he said.
While a daunting trip to Baku for the second leg awaits his side on Wednesday week, Perth said he wasn’t looking beyond the first leg where he said concentration would be key.
“When you’re in the zone we’re in you’re not even thinking about the away leg, you’re thinking about the first leg. Can we still be in the game going over there so that an away leg can really hurt them?
“We’ve got to do our business right in the first leg. I don’t think anybody is unbeatable at the level we’re operating at but we’re operating at a really high level and it’s a real game of fine margins. At this level for our players it’s all about concentration because one little mistake can be punished by top sides but at the same time when they make a mistake we need to be ready to punish them so as much as we’ve got to work on some of our defensive shape because they may have a bit more of the ball than us, we also have to be ready to counter attack and get at them very quickly.
“A clean sheet is key in these games, or at least giving yourself a chance in the away leg. You normally prefer to be at home in the second leg but I think this might suit us to be at home first. If we can get a positive result we may have to do something different away from home but we just have to concentrate on one game at a time.
“Staying in the tie is key in Europe. Partizani missed a big chance in the 76th minute oneon-one. Had they scored that it was 1-1 with an away goal for them. Qarabag dominated them with 74% possession but Partizani should have scored so if you keep the goals to a minimum in Europe you’ll always get a chance.”
Perth said he expected his side to be fired up for the game come Wednesday night.
“We’ve a lot of sore and tired bodies and travelling home obviously takes its toll on people. It was 120 minutes and a lot of tension and emotion and that can drain a lot of people so it was a very tired training session today but fitness wise I think everyone has come out of it.
“That will stand to the likes of Benson and Murray. These people needed game time but they’ve got it now.”
Michael Duffy also returned to training on Saturday having missed the win in Riga due to his partner Emily McCarron giving birth during extra-time of the game.
Perth said that while he would rather have had the winger, in a strange way the break will have done him good.
“He was back in today and trained as normal,” said Perth.
“He’s in really good form and I definitely think there’s a weight lifted off his shoulders now, so he’ll be a happy lad over the next week or so.
“Michael has been carrying an injury all season, to be honest with
you, so he has needed more rest in terms of he hasn’t been able to train at all at different stages.
“Now I think we’re over that over the last month or so but definitely the fact he missed the game means he is fresh now.”
While Dundalk will bank €1.2m from their European run on the back of victory over Riga, Perth said it was unlikely to change his transfer plans ahead of the deadline at the end of the month.
“It wasn’t worth as much money as people think,” he said.
“The cost of what we’re doing is astronomical. The club has really supported us. Your travel plans, your hotels and accommodation very quickly take up the money. I don’t think we’ve made that much money on the back of that result in the end and we’ve also got to get 30 odd people off to Azerbaijan next week as well which won’t be cheap.
“To be fair to the owners they’re very strict on the budget and it’s something we have to manage so I don’t see any wholesale changes to the squad any time soon.”