Dundalk FC Head Coach Filippo Giovagnoli says his team will have to vastly improve if they are to make a dent in this season’s UEFA Europa League group stages, after being handed a draw that sees them face Premier League giants Arsenal.
The Lilywhites beat Faroese side Klaksvíkar Ítróttarfelag at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday evening, with goals from Sean Murray, Daniel Cleary and Daniel Kelly securing a 3-1 win.
That victory meant Dundalk have reached the group stages of UEFA’s secondary club competition for the second time in five seasons. The qualification comes amid the backdrop of a tumultuous summer for the club, in which their league defence crumbled away before popular boss Vinny Perth was sacked by owners Peak6.
On Friday morning in Nyon, Dundalk FC were drawn against Arsenal, Norwegian side Molde FK and Rapid Wien of Austria in Group B of the competition. Four years ago, Stephen Kenny’s side met Zenit St Petersburg, AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Few supporters and those watching from afar would have predicted Giovagnoli, the unknown Italian plucked from academy football in New York to replace Perth, would led the Oriel Park side to the group stages of the Europa League and into a head-to-head fixtures against one of the biggest sides in Europe.
But, while Giovagnoli confesses that Dundalk have much work to do to ensure they are competitive once the group stage gets underway in 20 days time, he says his own rags-to-relative-riches story should give fans reason to dream.
“It’s really exciting to play at this level against those kind of teams. Imagine playing at Emirates Stadium,” he told LouthNow.ie on Friday. “It’s really a dream for everyone. We’re gonna prepare like we do always. We’re going to go to perform.
“We have nothing to lose. We have to be more relaxed than we were last night, stick to the plan, play to our football principle. We saw yesterday night if you’re nervous you don’t perform. We get through, this was the objective.
The Italian said Dundalk had taken “a step back” against the Faroes on Thursday night despite their three-goal tally ensuring a comfortable passage into the group stages.
“In Andorra we went with attitude to control the game, have possession, look up, not be afraid. But then we learned there are some times where a refereeing mistake can create you problems so we were aware and careful. Internationally anything can happen.
“Then we had a good performance in Moldova where the team stuck to the plan, were composed and had a few good moments in possession. We made chances.
“Yesterday, we had a step back with the performance. We were nervous, we lost composure and we couldn’t perform at our best. The players know. They told me at the end of the game. They know that we didn’t perform.
He continued: “We didn’t perform by our football principles, but they fought [and] the work ethic was there. They gave everything. It just wasn’t the right way.
Eight of the current Dundalk squad were part of the history-making squad that took part in the group stages of the 2016 UEFA Europa League, with Stephen Kenny’s team securing an away draw with AZ Alkmaar before beating Maccabi Tel Aviv 1-0 at Tallaght Stadium.
Giovagnoli hopes that those players can “transfer their experience” to the younger players and “create the right chemistry” to play at the high level required, with trips to north London, Norway and Vienna to come.
The manager said that the Peak6 owners had phoned and text him after the game and also acknowledged, with just a handful of games remaining this term, that the team need to improve their league form in order to ensure qualification for Europe in 2021.
“We have to finish this season well. We have to perform in the League, it’s a must to finish well, to qualify for Europe. This is one main objective for us. We build this family environment were every player is involved in the project. They want to keep going because I’m going to need everyone if you want to have a successful season.
“The club is more unified, I think,” he added.
The popular Dundalk Head Coach, who goes into the Europa League group stages without a Pro License, spoke highly of Arsenal, who are by some distance the most high profile side Dundalk have faced in Europe since they returned to continental competition in 2014.
“Arteta is an unbelievable coach, I really like him. He’s young and trying to apply his football principles the best he can. He was building up in his defensive third, in his own box against Liverpool and never panicked.
“This is fantastic. When I see things like that, it really inspires me. I like the kind of coach who is not afraid of nothing. They want to get result but through their football principles. This is amazing. I really admire him and I really look forward to meeting him and talking with him.
“I think they have better players than us, they have better coaches, better everything, of course they are better than us but this is the challenge. You want to fill the gap in some way. How are we going to fill the gap? Lets see,” Giovagnoli said.
“We need to play with a lot of heart and run a lot and be a little bit crazy and brave but we are going to try. Listen, anything is possible. I am here, I am the proof that anything is possible in life.”