Dundalk short of magic touch on big night
Dundalk 0 - 0 BATE Borisovo (BATE win 2-1 on aggregate)
Crushing disappointment for Dundalk, but this will not go down as the familiar League of Ireland hard luck story.
The border club exited the Champions League by the narrowest margin to the hands of a savvy BATE outfit that will harbour ambitions of progressing to the group stages for a fifth time.
And, when it came to the crunch, the attributes which have brought them across the line came to the fore as they managed to restrict a team that is used to opening teams up at Oriel Park.
Stephen Kenny's charges found it was a different story on a night where their usual fluency was lacking. Indeed, their display in the Borisov Arena was superior in terms of ball retention.
The lingering regret will be that they didn't capitalise on the gaps they found on foreign climes and secure a result that would have forced BATE to go chasing here.
Much as the Belarusians showed the ambition to put this tie beyond doubt, they had the discipline to freeze out Kenny's boys when they crossed the halfway line. They were only carved open once in the 90 minutes.
"To be honest, they were the better side tonight," sighed Dundalk midfielder Stephen O'Donnell, who was again outstanding. "We can have no complaints." His manager agreed.
"It would have been harsh on BATE had we won," he admitted. "I do feel we were very unfortunate in the first leg, it was a great display.
"Tonight was a hard working display with a lot of effort. Some quality, but not enough quality. We were playing against a teams that has been playing in the Champions League every year against top clubs, and getting results consistently. And it showed."
Dundalk started this game knowing that one goal would do thanks to Dave McMillan's strike in Belarus, and that remained the situation at the interval despite pre-match predictions that this game would have plenty of goals in it.
In truth, after a feverish build-up and the excitement generated by a lengthy rendition of the competition's anthem, the match started in a manner which appeared to support that theory. The problem for Dundalk is that it was the away corner who looked like doing all the scoring.
Vitaly Rodionov, lucky to be involved after his headbutt on Dane Massey seven days ago, could have put them ahead inside two minutes but shot over.
This was typical of a period where the natives were struggling to get to grips with the game, aside from the composed O'Donnell who was up to the task.
Kenny had opted to restore Ronan Finn to his side in place of Chris Shields, and Darren Meenan for John Mountney and the two newcomers were unable to really make an impact as a physical BATE outfit coped well with whatever Dundalk had to offer, even if their discomfort with the surface was apparent.
Rodionov had another effort blocked by O'Donnell before Ihar Stasevich cut in from the left to curl a handful of attempts off target.
Crucially, Dundalk survived this period and managed to settle, despite the inability to really get the dangerous Daryl Horgan involved. Unlike last week, BATE stuck pretty tight to the Galwegian as soon as he gained possession. "There was no respite," said Kenny.
Still, as Dundalk pressed, a clearcut opportunity followed as Nemanja Milunovic got himself in a muddle and Finn nipped in to release McMillan who weaved into the area and let fly with a left footer that Sergei Chernik blocked. That was the moment.
It was a break that bred hope, but another let-off was imminent. Sensing Dundalk unease, BATE probed again and Rodionov found Stasevich in space behind Sean Gannon; his shot was brilliantly pushed onto the crossbar by Gary Rogers.
Dundalk needed the whistle and to regroup. The local mood had switched to apprehension; a false rumour swept the stands that Meenan had received a second yellow card in the tunnel.
Within 10 minutes he was replaced, however, as Kenny sent for the solidity of Shields in order to free Richie Towell into a more attacking role.
Alas, he remained subdued in front of the watching Martin O'Neill.
Finn switched to the right where his main task was to track roaming left full Filip Mladenovic and that didn't start well as the Serbian raced in behind to drill wide with Rogers beaten. Dundalk had to take risks, though, with BATE still keeping them at arm's length.
As the clock ticked into its final quarter, Kenny urged his troops to lift it with a stirring run from Gannon lifting the volume. "We went a bit too direct which we never do," acknowledged Kenny. "It emphasised the pressure that BATE were putting on us in possession. We coughed it up too cheaply."
BATE, by contrast, carved openings through brief passages of play which hinted at their pedigree even though their shooting remained below par.
Dundalk were hoping for a break by sending crosses into the area. There was an absence of real incision. "We thought we could have created more chances," sighed Kenny.
He did send Mountney and Kurtis Byrne in with a view to turning the tide; BATE were applying pressure as opposed to withstanding it.
The switches were unable to really reverse that position as the seconds ticked by and the fourth official signalled for three minutes of time added on. BATE saw them out comfortably, with Dundalk bodies dropping to the ground at the final whistle.
Minor scuffles broke out as Byrne claimed that a BATE player had spat in his direction. Then, a visting official got in the middle of a skirmish that flared up again in reception afterwards as the travellers made their way to the bus. Christmas cards are unlikely.
"They'll probably qualify for the group stages," said O'Donnell, after leaving the field to a warm ovation with his colleagues. "It was the toughest draw possible."
They didn't want pats on the back and compliments; they wanted to succeed, but the sympathetic response was forthcoming anyway.
Kenny's challenge now is to keep this group together, retain the title and come back for another crack next year.
With second placed Cork now due in town on Sunday, they will have to pick themselves up and start that mission immediately.