Dundalk's European hopes are left on a knife-edge
Dundalk 0 AZ Alkmaar 1
Dundalk's European odyssey has been plunged into doubt after the Irish underdogs were defeated 1-0 at home by AZ Almaar.
The Lilywhites dropped a goal early to the Dutch visitors in a freezing cold night at Dublin's Tallaght Stadium.
Despite a gallant effort to get back into the game, their composure came undone as the match went on, dampening hopes of a major upset in the Europa League.
Dundalk, the lowest ranked side in the tournament, have to either beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel - or achieve a score draw if Zenit beat AZ in the final Group D games.
Manager Stephen Kenny admitted a sombre mood has descended over his team's dressing room.
"I can't remember us starting a game so poorly, but certainly we played well for a period in the first half," he said. "We got back into the game and did well but we were unfortunate not to equalise in that period."
AZ had plenty of chances too and Dundalk goalkeeper Gary Rogers kept hopes alive for much of the tie.
"A victory would have put us in a very strong position but we didn't do enough," said Kenny.
"We looked like we hadn't played for a few weeks."
Numerous injuries had threatened to undermine Dundalk's progress after a punishing 50-match season that had taken its toll on players, and that threat came to pass.
"I don't want to make excuses, that's the easy option," said Kenny. "But due to the number of injuries we had at the end of the schedule a lot of the players couldn't play,
"There was an element of that, but the players showed good character to come back as they did."
Not since the FAI Cup final defeat to Cork City on November 6 had Kenny's charges tasted competitive action and their uncaharcateristic sluggishness told in the opening exchanges, when Wout Weghorst pounced for the ninth minute strike that would ultimately settle the contest.
Holland international defender Ron Vlaar picked out a shot from distance before a brace of quickfire corners yielded the breakthrough when Robbie Benson's header fell to Mats Seuntjens and, though Dane Massey appeared to be waiting for Andy Boyle to clear, Weghorst capitalised on that hesitancy to poke home.
"We could have got a draw, it would have flattered us, but we just have to accept defeat and try make sure we go to Israel and give ourselves every chance out there," added Kenny.