Dundalk wilt in Baku heat as late Qarabağ goals put emphatic gloss on scoreline
Qarabağ FK 3 Dundalk 0 (Qarabağ FK win 4-1 on aggregate)
THE scoreline tells its own story. This task was beyond Dundalk, with the quality of Qarabag deservedly winning the day.
It's a long way to travel for a football lesson and, while the Azeri powerhouses have taken down bigger and better sides, this was still a sobering exercise for the League of Ireland champions.
Vinny Perth's team were still in this tie with 20 minutes remaining, but they were never truly comfortable against a fast moving opponent that is just clicking into gear and aiming for a Champions League return.
In the 28 degree heat of Baku, the gulf in quality was evident - although the suspicion lingers that this Dundalk side isn't quite firing on all cylinders.
This isn't the end of their European road.
They knew beforehand that a loss would send them into the Europa League qualifiers and a showdown with Slovan Bratislava.
Certainly, the experience of this tie will have sharpened them up ahead of Bratislava next Wednesday.
Qarabag are up there with any opponent they've faced in a golden era so the away side were always going to need to produce a career best to advance.
Any regrets will centre around that first leg, where late chances to take a lead here were squandered.
That might have put a little bit more pressure on the natives.
The early signs were ominous. Perth sprung a slight surprise in his team selection, introducing Daniel Cleary for the injured Robbie Benson, a cautious strategy which resulted in Sean Hoare moving into a defensive midfield role next to Chris Shields.
If containing an early Qarabag onslaught was the plan, it didn't work. Within a minute, the returning Croatian playmaker Filip Ozobic slipped Mahir Emreli through for a one on one with Gary Rogers making a smart stop.
The one touch passing of the locals was able to pull Dundalk bodies out of shape and, while the visitors reluctance to press was understandable enough given the heat and Qarabag's ability to play the ball out under pressure, it left them caught in a vulnerable position as black shirts buzzed forward with intent.
The away side did force a couple of early corners, yet the 12th minute breakthrough from Qarabag was in tune with the run of play. Abdellah Zoubir, a menace in the first leg, darted infield before working the ball right for Jaime Romero with the Spaniard too quick for Dane Massey and able to fashion a left footer that fizzed past Rogers at his near post.
Perth had spoken beforehand about staying in the tie in the event of an early concession, and his team regrouped to make it to the interval without suffering any further damage. Indeed, the loss of Ozobic to a setback checked Qarabag's rhythm.
Dundalk did have some joy getting forward on the right side with Sean Gannon and Jamie McGrath growing into the game. Cleary was also composed at centre half.
But the reality was that lone striker Patrick Hoban was mainly defending from the front, while Derry duo Michael Duffy and Patrick McEleney weren't able to impact the game in a meaningful way.
Neither would finish the game. Dundalk rode their luck after the restart with Rogers again denying Emreli, but the introduction of Sean Murray for Hoare was followed by a decent spell and their only chance of note with Hoban's flick from a Gannon cross lacking the pace to cross the line.
That was their window to shift momentum, yet Qarabag rose from a temporary lull - and the distraction of clashes between their own fans and police - to find another gear. A tired clearance from Duffy and a deep midfield line allowed a cross for left full Ailton to head home the insurance goal.
Romero duly added another either side of a pair of goalline clearances. Dundalk needed the whistle and the comparative respite of a 5,000km journey home.
Qarabag: Vagner, Medvedev (Husneyev 83), Mammadov, Sadygov, Ailton; Michel (Slavchev 71), Almeida; Romero, Ozobic (Quintana 25), Zoubir; Emreli
Dundalk: Rogers, Gannon, Cleary, Boyle, Massey; Hoare (Murray 56), Shields; McGrath, McEleney (Mountney 65), Duffy (D Kelly 79); Hoban
Referee: Svein Oddvar Moen (Norway)