It's all to play for in Cyprus next week as Dundalk and AEK Larnaca played out a scoreless draw in their Europa League Second Qualifying Round first-leg tie at Oriel Park on Thursday night.

A tense evening, which saw Austrian referee Harald Lechmer overturn his baffling decision to send Patrick Hoban off, saw both sides fail to take their chances and establish a lead.

It leaves the tie on a knife edge ahead of the return leg at the AEK Arena but Dundalk, who have only failed to score in one of their 11 European away matches under Stephen Kenny, will back themselves to complete the job next week.

The SSE Airtricity League leaders had to plan without the injured Sean Gannon who picked up a knock in training on Wednesday morning. His absence opened the door for Daniel Cleary to make his first start in European competition. 

Andoni Iraola, who spent most of his playing career with Athletic Bilbao, took charge of AEK for the first time and his starting XI featured three debutantes.

Goalkeeper Tono Ramirez played with Real Sociedad last season while central defender Mikel Gonzalez made over 200 appearances with the same club during a 15-year spell in La Liga. Igor Silva, a 21-year-old Brazilian on loan from Olympiacos, started at right-back.

The AEK team had an average age of 29 and contained six Spaniards, two of them, Larena Jorge and Acoran, in their mid-thirties.

A somewhat hectic first-half, which saw both sides very loose in possession, ended scoreless with Dundalk just about shading it in terms of chances. 

Lechner wasted no time in stamping his authority on the game, booking Dane Massey in the fourth minute for a challenge that left Acoran in a heap on the ground.

AEK skipper Ivan Trickovski flashed an effort just wide of Gary Rogers' right-hand post shortly after but it was the hosts who went agonisingly close to making the breakthrough in the ninth minute.

Hoban's physicality forced Jorge Truyols into a sloppy header that fell kindly into Michael Duffy's path. With AEK outnumbered, the flying winger went for the jugular but his right-footed curler kissed the outside of the post.

Referee Harald Lachmer overturned his decision to red card Patrick Hoban

The scatty nature of the half continued with both teams coughing up possession and struggling to get into any sort of rhythm but AEK spurned a great chance midway through the half. 

Picked out by Thomas Ioannou, Joan Tomas looked set to bag an away goal but Sean Hoare somehow managed to come out of nowhere and block his effort with the Spaniard wasting the rebound and  

Lechner brought the half to a close right as the clock hit the 45-minute mark.

The second-half was just three minutes old when Dundalk hearts skipped a beat. Acoran's free was knocked down at the far post by Trickovski but Rogers did enough to keep Apostolous Giannou's close-range effort from hitting the net.

The natives in the main stand became increasingly restless with Lachter's decision making. One of those led to a free-kick in a decent position but Rogers gathered Larena Jorge's effort comfortably.

Both managers shuffled their respective packs with AEK introducing Tete past the hour mark and Kenny bringing Patrick McEleney on for his second coming with 25 minutes to play. The Derryman quickly got into the thick of things, setting Benson up for a drive that hit the side netting as Dundalk tried to build a head of steam.

Lachter lost the run of himself in the 73rd minute when he brandished a yellow card in Hoban's direction - followed by a red - after a nothing foul on Ramirez.  The dumbfounded striker made his way to the tunnel but the match official realised that it was Hoban's first booking and rescinded the decision!

Playing their first game of the season, it was no surprise to see Larnaca become a bit leggy in the final stages and Duffy had two good opportunities in quick succession.

The first, a half-volley from Benson's pass, was the best of the two but he couldn't get the purchase he needed to beat Ramirez. The second had the power but lacked direction, the 'keeper equal to the task.

The card tally rose to six as Duffy became the fourth Dundalk player to pick up a caution and Larnaca almost landed a sucker punch late on but Rogers gathered a Nacho Cases curler to keep a clean sheet and set it up for what should be a cracker in Cyprus next week. 

Dundalk: Gary Rogers; Sean Hoare, Brian Gartland, Dan Cleary, Dane Massey (Dean Jarvis 81); Chris Shields, Robbie Benson; Dylan Connolly (Ronan Murray 84), Jamie McGrath (Patrick McEleney 65), Michael Duffy; Patrick Hoban. 

AEK Larnaca: Toño Ramírez; Igor Silva, Joan Truyols, Mikel Gonzalez; Acorán, Larena Jorge (Nacho Cases 83), Joan Tomàs (Tete 62), Hector Hevel, Thomas Ioannou; Ivan Tričkovski, Apostolos Giannou (Onisforos Roushias 90). 

Referee: Harald Lechner (Austria).