Vinny Perth might be taking charge of his first Champions League match when Dundalk take on Riga FC at Oriel Park tonight but the experience built up in recent years means he won’t be taking the Latvians lightly.
As the seeded team, the Lilywhites will be favourites to advance to a second qualifying round tie against either FK Partizani of Albania or Qarabag of Azerbaijan laster this month.
However, having watched Mihails Koņevs’ side extensively since they were paired together last month, Perth says the Virsliga champions should not be underestimated.
“We’ve seen them live four times at this stage,” said the Dundalk head coach.
“They’re a big, physically strong team but they’re technically very good as well. Some of their attacking play is really strong. That’s probably the strongest part of their team, their attacking front four.
“They’ve 12 internationals so they’re obviously a very experienced team and they’ve strengthened the squad over the last four weeks after the draw was made so I presume they see an opportunity to progress.”
While many fans and pundits expect Dundalk to see off the challenge of Riga, who only made their European debut 12 months ago when they lost to CSKA Sofia on penalties, Perth says within the camp the players are not taking anything for granted.
“I don’t see that as a concern internally but it’s definitely a concern externally where people think Latvian football is not as strong as Irish football.
“The players respect them. They’re a good side and there’s definitely a level of respect there.”
While Dundalk will be hoping to take a lead to Skonto Stadium for next Wednesday’s second leg, Perth said he wouldn’t panic if they failed to do so.
“We’ve been here before where we haven’t had leads. Obviously at home we will try and get a lead.
“Clean sheets, as much as possible, are very important in Europe and we’ve always fancied ourselves to score goals. Leading is not the be-all and end-all.”
The 42-year-old, who stepped up into the head coach role following Stephen Kenny’s departure last November, said he was not worried about taking on the responsibility of managing in Europe.
“I would feel pressure if this was my first game but it’s my 25th.
“I feel I brought a lot to the table over the last six or seven years so that in my eyes takes a little bit of pressure away because I’ve achieved quite a lot in Europe as a coach.”
Perth also feels his side have learned lessons from last year’s disappointing Europa League defeat away to AEK Larnaca when they lost 4-0 in the second leg.
“We lost heavily on the night but I said it at the time that I wouldn’t let 45 minutes of football cloud any of our judgement in terms of what we’ve done.
“We got punished for big mistakes and people out of form over 45 minutes. We paid the penalty for it but we definitely have learnt from that. We’ve spoken about it internally and we’ve moved on from it.
“This now is an opportunity to put things right,” said Perth.
Meanwhile, club captain Brian Gartland – who yesterday signed a contract extension with the club until the end of 2020 – expects a tight affair in the first leg.
“They’ll be coming over here to keep things tight and to bring it back home. I think the signings they’ve had in the last few weeks, (Roman) Debelko and a couple of other lads, are quality signings and that shows their ambition. They’re looking at this tie and thinking we’ve a chance of getting through here. Nothing can be taken for granted and you really have to be at it to get through,” he said.
Jordan Flores is the only absentee for Dundalk with a hip flexor injury.
Sometimes you have to experience loss to really appreciate what matters.
That’s why Sean Gannon will be amongst the most fired up of his Dundalk team-mates when they take to the field for their Champions League first qualifying round first leg tie with Riga FC at Oriel Park on Wednesday.
An ever present of Dundalk’s 22 European matches under Stephen Kenny, that run came to an end last summer when a rib injury saw him sit out the 0-0 Europa League second qualifying round first leg draw at home to AEK Larnaca at Oriel Park on July 26th last.
The right back would return to action as a second half substitute in the AEK Arena a week later but by that stage Dundalk were trailing the Cypriots 3-0 and would eventually succumb to a 4-0 defeat – the club’s heaviest in Europe in the Kenny era.
Twelve months on former assistant Vinny Perth is at the helm but the desire to do well in Europe remains the same. Indeed, that fire to do well only burns brighter according to Gannon given last year’s experience.
“It was a hard lesson but we hope we’ve learned from it,” he said reflecting back on that sweltering night in Larnaca.
“Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say it didn’t go our way. It was just one of those things where you take lessons from it and try to rectify the problems but also you have to say if it wasn’t to be, it wasn’t to be and that’s it.
“I came on at half-time over there. I had just got back for training the night before. I came back from the rib injury and played against Cork but when you come back from a long injury you can pick up other knocks and I kind of had a little tweak in my calf.
“Obviously I missed the home leg against Larnaca but I did my best to get back for the second leg and trained the night before but I didn’t start. It was hard to watch because it looked really tough and you just want to help the lads out, especially in those conditions.
“It was a bit of a freak game because I don’t think anyone would have expected it to work out the way it did. A lot of elements worked against us that day but that’s why we’re all looking forward to Europe this year. A lot of us who played in Europe last year are still here and we want to give a better showing from ourselves.”
Wednesday will be a landmark night for Gannon as he prepares for what will be the 250th start of his career. While he couldn’t have picked a much better occasion than a Champions League tie to reach that milestone, he insists a positive result is all that will matter to him on the night.
“I didn’t know that to be honest,” he said when the feat was put to him.
“When I came here I never thought I’d reach 250 games. Obviously a huge bulk of that was with Dundalk. All my family will be there and it’s a good occasion to do it in but it’s all about winning regardless of all the other stuff.
“We just want a good result at home in Europe to take away next week.
“I think since I’ve been here I’ve been lucky enough to play in a good chunk of the European games and they are brilliant.
“There’s a great atmosphere and you saw the queue for tickets outside Oriel, the place is going to be absolutely rammed on Wednesday.
“It’s live on TV so it’s a great occasion. We’ve a squad of more than 20 players and every single player wants to play so we just need to make sure that we’re ready for it because there’s no easy games in Europe. Riga will be a good side so we just have to make sure we’re as prepared as we can be.”
While Dundalk will be favourites to beat the Latvian champions, Gannon has enough European experience under his belt to know not to expect any favours from Mihails Koņevs’ side.
“You’re playing in the Champions League so there’s no easy games,” said the 27-year-old.
“We’re playing against a team who have won their domestic league so they’re obviously a very good side.
“We’re at home first so we need to come flying out of the blocks, put them under pressure and get a good result going away.”
With Dundalk’s record European appearance holder Dane Massey currently being rotated with Dean Jarvis, there is a good chance that the in-form Gannon could overtake him in the coming campaign but the former St Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers player says that is the least of his concerns.
“For me it’s all just about getting through with the team. Obviously for a club like Dundalk, it’s a big compliment to be up there in terms of European appearances but it’s all just about the team really. It’s not about any one player or records or anything like that.
“I’ll gladly take the team winning over any individual stuff. It’s a team game and the team winning is the most important thing,” said Gannon.
Last year undoubtedly stung Dundalk. Riga could now face the backlash on Wednesday.
If you had offered Dundalk supporters the chance to face the side ranked 30th out of the 32 teams in the first qualifying round of the Champions League then they’d have probably ripped your hand off. Make no mistake about it though, Riga FC will be no pushovers when the sides go head to head next month.
History, or a lack of it, is the key reason the Latvian champion’s co-efficient is where it is and while Vinny Perth’s side will undoubtedly enter the game as favourites, chances are there won’t be a great deal between the sides.
Riga FC were only registered in 2014 before being officially established in 2015 after a merger between two of the city’s clubs – FC Caramba Riga and Dinamo Riga.
The newly-established club began life in the Latvian First League (second tier) under the name FC Caramba/Dinamo and won promotion to the Higher League (Virslīga) at the first time of asking as champions in 2015.
It was after winning promotion that they changed their name to Riga FC.
Since 2016, home games have been played at the 9,500 capacity Skonto Stadium, former home of Skonto who dissolved in 2016. This is also where the Latvian national side played their home games up until 2017.
Riga achieved a fifth-place finish in their first season in the top-flight before coming third of seven teams in the 2017 season after Babite had been thrown out mid-season following a match-fixing scandal.
Thanks to that third-place finish, they qualified for the Europa League last year where they came up against CSKA Sofia. The Bulgarians won the home leg 1-0 but lost by the same margin in the second leg in Riga before eventually advancing 5-3 on penalties.
Ex-Ukraine international Viktor Skrypnyk was appointed as manager ahead of that maiden European tie and went on to lead the club to their first Virslīga title and Latvian Cup wins.
They finished top of the league four points clear of six-time champions Ventspils, whom they also defeated in the cup final on penalties last October.
Following their 6-1 victory over third placed FK Spartaks Jurmala on Friday, Riga FC currently head the table by three points from second placed RFC after 16 matches played. This season hasn’t been without its problems, however, with a series of managerial changes.
Before they had begun their title defence, the club announced the departure of Skrypnyk in February.
Since then, they appointed Portuguese Luís Berkemeier Pimenta who left in March before the start of the new season. He was replaced by reserve team coach Mihails Konevs on a caretaker basis.
Belarus native Oleg Kubarev took the reins at the end of March but he then left at the end of April at which point Konevs was re-appointed and there he remains with the club back on top of the table.
A run of seven wins, a draw and two defeats in their 10 league matches under Konevs has them in good form heading into Europe with three games still to play before they travel to Dundalk for the first leg on July 10th.
Konevs has switched between 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 formations this season with 25-year-old Serbian sharp-shooter Darko Lemajic the man usually picked to lead the line. The 25-year-old, who was the league’s top scorer with 15 goals in 24 matches last season, has missed the last five games through injury but a familiar name to Dundalk fans has been drafted in with Roman Debelko, who played against the Lilywhites for Levadia Tallinn last season, leading the line against Spartaks Jumala on Friday.
Polish forward Kamil Bilinski also came off the bench on Friday to nab a late brace which took his return for the season to three goals in five outings. Bilinski will be well known to St Patrick’s Athletic supporters having scored in both legs for Lithuanian side FK Žalgiris as they beat the Inchicore side 4-3 on aggregate in the Europa League in 2013.
Tomislav Saric is another key player for the Latvian champions. The 28-year-old Croatian plays as a defensive midfielder in the 4-2-3-1 formation or in the central pair in the 4-1-4-1 and has also bagged a couple of goals this season.
Riga might not have history behind them but they do have experience. Eleven of their current squad have been capped at international level, not just by Latvia but by Albania, Georgia and Serbia.
The most experienced of their side is captain, 35-year-old midfielder Aleksejs Visnakovs, who has amassed 81 caps for Latvia. Olegs Laizans, Ritvars Rugins and Arturs Karasausks, all featured in Latvia’s recent Euro 2020 qualifiers against Israel and Slovenia.
Nine of the current squad have also played for the now dissolved Skonto Riga, who in 2015 beat a Pat’s side containing current Dundalk stars Sean Hoare and Jamie McGrath 4-1 on aggregate.
The prize on offer for the winners is a meeting with either FK Partizani (Albania) or Qarabag FK (Azerbaijan) in the second qualifying round of the Champions League. Dundalk will hope they’re looking to those far flung destinations rather than planning for a Europa League qualifier against either their old foes BATE Borisov or Polish champions Piast Gliwice.
Perth’s side have what it takes to get the job done over two legs but, make no mistake, it won’t be easy.