Dundalk head coach Vinny Perth has flown to Latvia to take in Riga FC’s league match with bottom of the table Jelgava at the Skonto Stadium on Wednesday night.
The Lilywhites welcome Mikhail Koenev’s side to Oriel Park on Wednesday, July 10th for their Champions League first qualifying round first-leg tie and Perth is determined to do as much homework as he can between now and then.
Opposition analyst Stephen O’Donnell watched Riga put six past third-placed Spartaks Jurmula on Friday night, a game which saw Ukranian striker, Roman Debelko, who played against Dundalk in the Europa League with Levadia Tallinn last season, make his debut.
Norwegian Abdisalam Ibrahim, a former Manchester City youth player who arrived on loan from Cypriot outfit Paphos last week, also made his first appearance while former Reading player Deniss Rakels, a Latvian international who returned to Riga after six months with Paphos, played 45 minutes and scored.
“Stevie reaffirmed what we already thought about them,” said Perth. “They’re a very good side. They’ve signed a few players since the draw was made and we’ve heard they may add to that and throw some money at it before our tie.”
A crowd of just 763 watched Sunday’s game at the Skonto Stadium, just the second that Riga have played at the ground this season. A new grass surface, installed at a cost of €200,000, meant they were forced to play their home matches at a smaller venue and even though there were 3,241 at the Riga derby with Rigas FC at the Skonto Stadium on June 1st, their average attendance for the season is just 242.
With a coefficient of just 1.125, Riga were ranked 30th of the 32 sides in the first qualifying round draw, behind the likes of Linfield and Faroe Islands outfit Torshavn, but that rating is very much a false flag.
Riga FC was only formed in 2014 following the merger of two clubs, FC Caramba Riga and Dinamo Riga. They went on to win promotion from the First Division a year later under the banner of FC Caramba Dinamo.
The club changed its name to Riga FC and finished fifth and third in 2016 and 2017 respectively before going on to win the Latvian league and cup double last year.
Latvian journalists have revealed that Dundalk, along with Welsh champions TNS, were Riga’s preferred opposition and Perth said that nobody should underestimate the challenge in front of the Lilywhites.
”They could have been away to BATE Borisov, for example, so they will be comfortable with the draw and we understand that. They’ll see it as an opportunity to progress.
“I think this will be a similar type of game to ones we’ve had in Europe over the years. The match against FH in 2016 was in the balance and the game with Levadia Tallinn was in the balance last year. I see this being similar. There’s not much between the two sides.”
Four possible outcomes lie on the other side of the tie. The winner will face FK Partizani from Albania or Azerbaijan kingpins Qarabag FK in the second qualifying round of the Champions League with the losers handed a real booby prize in the form of Belarussian heavyweights BATE Borisov or Polish champions Piast Gliwice in the Europa League second qualifying round.
With a maximum of eight days between the second-leg of the Riga tie and the first leg of the second qualifying round, Perth admits it will present Dundalk with something of a conundrum in terms of preparation.
“We’ll have to see how the first leg goes,” he said. “It’ll be a judgement call after that game to see whether Stevie O’Donnell will be getting a plane to Azerbaijan, Albania, Poland or Belarus. Even then, it’s impossible to know if it’s the right decision. We’ll just have to see how it pans out.”
Before that, Dundalk face a crucial schedule of three league games in the space of seven days, beginning with this week’s mouth-watering clash away to second-placed Shamrock Rovers.
The champions made the most of the mid-season break by spending five days at a training camp in Spain with the latter end of the trip dedicated to what happens in Tallaght on Friday night.
“The trip to Spain was excellent,” said Perth. “It was everything we wanted it to be. We got a lot of work done and we really enjoyed it and, for the first time all season, we had everybody on the training ground at the one time.
“That was a real milestone,” he added. “When I copped it and announced it, we gave ourselves a standing ovation! It’s a small thing but it meant so much for us to have everybody back. It was a brilliant week.
“We trained in Spain on Sunday and the whole session was geared around Shamrock Rovers so we haven’t lost sight of what’s coming up,” he added. “We did use the trip as an opportunity to prepare for Europe in terms of pressing and recovering in the heat and so on, but over the past 48 hours, our sole focus has been on Rovers. Europe has to go on the back burner now.”
A win would move Dundalk eight points clear at the summit but, not for the first time, Perth said the league table was something he wasn’t overly concerned about at the minute.
“There’s no doubt it would give us confidence but the league will be skewed and in three weeks’ time we could find ourselves a point behind. We need to ignore the league table at the minute. We’ll go and try and win the game but there’ll be nothing won or lost in Tallaght.”
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