t was a fantastic Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup semi-final and one which sparked a lot of debate amongst #GreatestLeagueInTheWorld supporters on how UCD would fare in the Premier Division next season.
Dundalk secured the victory thanks to a wonder-strike from Patrick McEleney but the Students were more than a match for the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division leaders throughout the contest.
UCD will be playing Premier Division football next season after winning the First Division title this year so last night’s game is a great indicator on how Collie O’Neill’s side will deal with the step-up next season. Let’s look at the five big talking points from last night’s game.
1. The O’Neill/Sloggett midfield combo
UCD drew widespread praise for their style of play and none more so than their engine room of captain Gary O’Neill and Greg Sloggett.
It was extremely noticeable how both players were adept at taking the ball in tight areas but determined to stick to the passing principles their manager has installed in this team. O’Neill often took it upon himself to drop back into defensive positions to take up space and get the team moving forward with incisive, forward passes.
As Matt Devaney, former Chairman of Bohemians points out, is there many better midfield combinations in the Premier Division? If the Students can keep this particular pairing together next season, most teams would have to watch out for their control, balance and understanding in the middle of the park which is one of the key reasons for UCD’s fantastic passing performance.
2. Stick to the principles
As Alan Cawley points out below, the Students were determined to stick to their key principles throughout the contest and never had the temptation to ‘go long’ in the final stages.
Whilst O’Neill and Sloggett are praised above, those same attributes could be used to praise almost every member of the team. Timmy Molloy, in particular, showed some fantastic one-touch passes under pressure to get the Students out of tight areas. It was a main feature of UCD’s game that every player on the team were comfortable in two-touch football which has obviously been drilled into them by manager Collie O’Neill.
3. Lack of goal-scoring opportunities
It is a fair point to be raised. Gary O’Neill went close with a free-kick but outside of that, the Students failed to get enough efforts on target throughout the contest.
Particularly in the second-half when their possession should have resulted in more goal-scoring opportunities, Dundalk always seemed comfortable and able to deal with any threat. Now, to put it in context, this is the First Division Champions who faced the Premier Division Champions in-waiting.
But, with Premier Division football looming next season, it will surely be on the mind of manager O’Neill heading into 2019. As Neil O’Riordan points out, they didn’t do enough to trouble Dundalk on the night and wasted the odd opportunity to do so. None more so than Neil Farrugia’s chance to slip the ball in behind the defence for the on-rushing Conor Davis during the second-half, but choose the wrong option instead. Next year, those opportunities will have to be taken.
4. Super Scales
As rightly pointed out by Stephen Alkin on RTE commentary last night, the UCD centre-back had an outstanding night at the back.
Scales, like all of his Student team-mates, was extremely comfortable on the ball and showed no signs of panic despite being part of the last line of defence. But, it was his ability to deal with one-on-one situations which stood out the most. Tasked with marking the huge Brian Gartland at set-pieces, Scales stood up to the challenge. In the 78th minute, a brilliant corner by Michael Duffy searched for Gartland at the back post, a situation we’ve seen end in a Dundalk goal many times this season. But Scales, rose highest and headed the ball away under pressure expertly.
You can only imagine Gartland was thinking ‘not bad’ as Scales carried out his defensive responsibilities. For Kieran McDaid, Scales was the stand-out.