Brave Dundalk devastated as Split decision wrecks dream
Hajduk Split 1 Dundalk 2 (Hajduk Split win 3-2 on agg)
Dundalk's Europa League dream came to an end in heartbreaking fashion as they beat Hajduk Split in Croatia, but still exited the competition.
Leading 2-0 from the first leg, Igor Tudor's side looked like they had killed Dundalk off when Jean Kouassi made it 3-0 on aggregate in the 25th minute.
Dundalk, however, rallied in the second half and substitutes Patrick Hoban and Kurtis Byrne put Stephen Kenny's side one goal away from creating history by becoming the first League of Ireland side to progress in Europe after losing the first leg at home.
The Lilywhites threw men forward in the latter stages, with Richie Towell drawing a late save from Dante Stipica, but Split held on to book their spot in the third qualifying round and end Irish involvement in European competition for another season.
Dundalk's best chance of the first half came after 24 minutes via Towell, but he scuffed it.
Seconds afterwards, Gabriel Sava – a surprise replacement for Peter Cherrie – found himself picking the ball out of his net as Kouassi finished clinically.
Sandro Gotal's magnificent back-heel cut the Dundalk back-four open and Kouassi, who set up Hajduk's second goal at Oriel Park, got in to clinically finish past the Lilywhites goalkeeper.
With Dundalk on the ropes, Hajduk tried to land a knockout blow and Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur target Nikola Vlasic and Marko Bencun both fired attempts at Sava's goal.
Kenny's side restored calm, however, and they were unlucky again just past the half-hour mark. David McMillan whipped in a deep cross from the right to the inrushing Dane Massey but his effort was blocked by the impressive Nizic.
Ivorian Kouassi was threatening again minutes later. Collecting a Nizic pass, he turned inside to let fly with an effort that just cleared Sava's crossbar.
With Split threatening, Kenny introduced Hoban in the 57th minute and the move paid off nine minutes later when he pounced on a poor back-pass by left-back Goran Jozinovic to round Stipica and roll the ball home.
If the visiting fans were given a glimmer of hope by that goal, they were believing in a fairytale ending after Dundalk forged ahead on the night when Byrne stabbed the ball home.
The Hajduk fans were living on their nerves late on, but Dundalk just couldn't find that crucial third goal.
Hajduk Split – Stipica; Nizic, Milovic, Maloca, Jozinovic; Vlasic, Andelkovic, Caktas (Bradaric HT), Kouassi (Maglica 62), Gotal, Bencun.
Dundalk – Sava; Gannon, Boyle, Gartland, Massey; Shields, Higgins (Meenan 87); Mountney, Towell, McDermott (Hoban 57); McMillan (Byrne 68).
REF – I Marius Avram (Romania).