The two biggest games in Dundalk's season have been distilled down to just one and the pressure is on manager Vinny Perth and his squad.

They take on Slovenian champions NK Celje in Hungary in a one-off, winner-takes-all Champions League game worth €380,000, on top of the €280,000 that the sides have already banked for getting to the first qualifying round.

With the financial pressures that all clubs are under due to Covid-19, the prize money is arguably more important now than it has ever been for the Lilywhites but there’s much more than just financial gain at stake.

Victory for Perth’s men would mean a home draw against Norwegian champions Molde or Finnish outfit KuPS in the second qualifying round and would give what appears to be a flagging season a much-needed shot in the arm.

Dundalk go into the game still searching for their first league victory since lockdown and with Shamrock Rovers stretching their lead at the top the table week by week, Europe is now their top priority, if it wasn’t already.

To that end, the Lilywhites have been boosted by the long-awaited return of Brian Gartland, whose nine-month absence has been keenly felt during that time.

Gartland did not feature in his side’s 2-2 league draw with Waterford on Friday but did play all 90 minutes of their FAI Cup victory over the same side three days earlier and one of Perth’s biggest selection decisions will be whether or not to start with their skipper in Hungary.

His lack of match experience of late and slower pace has to be balanced against his leadership and experience and Perth has a tough call when it comes to picking which one of Gartland, Andy Boyle and Seán Hoare to leave out.

Brian Gartland is available, but will he start?

Chris Shields looks likely to sit in front of the back four to offer protection, with Pat Hoban set to lead the line up front, while in midfield Perth has plenty of options depending on how he wants to approach the game.

Nathan Oduwa’s trickery and creativity should be enough to earn him a place in the starting line-up, while Stefan Colovic will be hoping that he is the man to get the nod to play in behind Hoban.

The Irish champions are set to face real pace in the form of attackers Dario Vizinger and Mitja Lotric, who had 41 goals between them last season, and that will certainly figure in Perth’s thinking, but the Dundalk boss already has an inside line on Celje.

Winger Oduwa spent a year and a half playing for Olimpija Ljubljana in the Slovenian league and got a first-hand taste of just what Celje are capable of.

Oduwa’s team-mate Hoare told Dundalk’s website: "Nathan has played against them before and said they’re a possession-based team but we’d fancy our chances against anyone. We’ll do our homework and we’ll be ready.

"The Slovenia League is a very good league and they obviously did very well to win it but we are the champions of Ireland and we have done well in Europe in the past and we’ll do our homework and be as best prepared as we can.

"It’s going to be an away fixture for both teams now. I know when a team comes to Oriel it can be very intimidating and very tough to play at in front of a packed house.

"Hopefully, it’s a nice stadium and a nice pitch. It’s a fair venue for both of us and hopefully, we can use this to our advantage. The fact that it’s only over one-leg is another change. Usually, teams suss each other out in the first leg. That won’t happen this year so it’ll be all guns blazing."

Nathan Oduwa has experience of Celje

Meanwhile experienced Celje manager Dusan Koscic is eager to see his side make the step up in Europe, having failed to make an impact on the international front over the last decade or so.

Since 2013, Celje have failed to progress past the first qualifying round of the Europa League and Koscic, whose side are still in pre-season, acknowledges that the clash against Dundalk represents a big step up for them.

"We are aware that we have a challenge ahead of us," he said. "We are talking to the boys about not playing for ourselves and Celje on Wednesday, but for Slovenia.

"The boys have been focused so far. We are aware that we do not have any experience at this level, but our last three years have been focused on being internationally competitive.

"We are looking forward to Wednesday and we will try to show the best face. Anything less than being 100% engaged can be quickly punished in Europe. I know that the boys know this and that we will represent Slovenia with dignity on Wednesday."

Watch live coverage of the Dundalk v NK Celje in the Champions League first-round qualifier on RTÉ 2 and the RTÉ Player today from 5:45pm

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