Athlone Town’s SSE Airtricity League Premier Division loss at Thomond Park against Limerick has put the Midlanders in a spot of bother ahead of Friday’s Lissywollen encounter with Dundalk.
Though it was Athlone’s first defeat since August 9 the fact that Dundalk and St Patrick’s Athletic are next on the agenda ensures a tricky schedule awaits. UCD’s own difficulties, though, offer a glimmer of hope for Athlone, who trail the Students by a point. Obtaining a play-off berth has been Athlone’s target since April so the upcoming month promises to be as revealing as it is defining.
Athlone battled in the south west, but Limerick’s greater attacking craft proved decisive. Kieran Djilali enjoyed his most productive outing in a Limerick shirt while Rory Gaffney’s excellence leading the line was also evident. Both Djilali and Gaffney bagged braces as Athlone’s stretched defence couldn’t cope with the fluidity and movement of the lively home side.
Throughout the year Dundalk have created and taken chances scoring 67 goals in 29 matches to date. Those figures are staggering considering that the stakes are piled so high for Dundalk, who currently are ahead of Cork City on goal difference even though the Lilywhites do have one game extra to play.
Dundalk’s campaign has been packed with classy moments as Stephen Kenny’s charges close in on the title. Kenny has the Lilywhites playing an attractive, but more importantly a winning brand of football. How Athlone attempt to stifle Dundalk will be interesting to watch as Long is likely to adopt a five-man midfield for a fixture which carries critical implications at both ends of the table. When top and bottom collide the need for points is severe and Athlone know that a draw could edge them above UCD in the standings depending on how Aaron Callaghan’s team fare against Cork.
Derry City and Drogheda United are UCD’s other opponents so the Students will be quietly confident of taking some sort of dividend from those clashes.
Thirteen of Athlone’s 18 points have been registered on home turf so there is no denying that they need to post two positive results against Dundalk and Bray Wanderers. Dundalk have the footballers to cope away from Oriel Park where they are still protecting a proud unbeaten record in the league. The Lilywhites have won nine out of 15 on the road even if the injury-enforced absence of Dave McMillan is a blow.
Kenny has used his squad wisely all year and with skipper Stephen O’Donnell on the verge of a return following a lengthy cruciate ligament absence their midfield options will be bolstered. That is the area of the park in which Athlone must be solid from the outset as Dundalk’s passing pedigree is well documented.
A decent crowd will gather at Lissywollen as Athlone seek to maintain a survival mission that appeared seemingly impossible in April. The gutsy way in which Athlone competed to give themselves a shot at making a play-off is worthy of the utmost respect, but moral victories aren’t required any more. Adding to the account is all that truly matters for Athlone in the closing lap of the 2014 top flight marathon.