Dundalk lack dynamic spark to ascend to next level of Europa League
Dundalk 1 Slovan Bratislava 3 (Slovan win 4-1 on aggregate)
The end of the road for Irish clubs in Europe.
And for Dundalk, a return to the scene of their greatest 2016 nights provided a sobering reminder of the standards they need to meet to emulate that success.
Vinny Perth says this is the best squad that Dundalk have ever assembled. Throughout this European campaign, he has also asserted they had a big performance in them.
But while a second-half rally ensured that they departed the Europa League scene in a spirited manner, this display lacked the control and assurance that defined their heroic feats under Stephen Kenny.
Slack play left them with a mountain that was much too big to climb.
Patrick Hoban's missed penalty could have set Dundalk up for a draw on the night, but a late strike from Slovan confirmed that the Lilywhites European record for the year finishes up at three draws and three defeats from six games.
Northern Irish champions Linfield have succeeded in going further through the Europa consolation route, albeit with the help of a favourable draw.
But the Belfast club's haul of five goals in two games with Montenegro's top side - who knocked Slovan out of the Champions League - contrasts dramatically with Dundalk's total of two across 540 minutes of European action.
The Louth club's American owners will expect much more if - as seems likely - Perth's charges retain their title and return to this sphere again 12 months from now. Their squad may be good enough to rule the roost domestically, but they are lacking a dynamic spark to ascend to the next level.
European opposition are finding flaws that their week-to-week rivals cannot locate. And that should provoke a broader discussion.
Perth had spoken beforehand about his team needing to be brave, and they certainly showed attacking intent from the outset. The problem was that it left space that Bratislava thrived in.
This is not a Dundalk hard luck story; they left holes that were exploited. But it will frustrate the natives that the two first-half goals they conceded both came from Slovan counters.
The Irish champions' failure to score in Slovakia last week always left them vulnerable to a sucker punch.
After chances at both ends in the early exchanges, with Jamie McGrath denied by Dominik Grief before Andy Boyle atoned for an error with a goalline clearance, Dundalk were undone by a textbook Slovan advance to catch out a team with bodies committed.
An intelligent ball down the flanks gave Andraz Sporar space to exploit and his cross to the back post was steered home by the head of Rafael Ratao.
The deathly response, save for the joy of the boisterous away fans, suggested that this was already game over.
Still, Dundalk regrouped to go in search of the three goals they needed and they actually created more chances in this match than in their previous five encounters. But they couldn't convert them.
Hoban had a close-range effort blocked when a Boyle header from a corner fell his way, and Sean Murray fired narrowly wide before Speif saved well from a deflected Chris Shields shot and a John Mountney free.
Slovan had chances too, however, and the overall play of €2m striker Sporar was exceptional in the first 45.
That transfer fee does illustrate a gulf in resources, but Dundalk failed to meet their own standards by conceding a daft second goal with Boyle caught on the back foot by a hopeful diagonal forward with his undercooked header seized upon by Aleksandar Cavric who lofted the ball over the exposed Gary Rogers.
This really was tie over.
After that, the realistic mission for Dundalk was the restoration of pride. Perth made a pair of half-time changes, bringing in Patrick McEleney and Seán Hoare, and the white shirts were on top as rain fell. But Slovan sat back too. It did help that their 'keeper, Greif, was in fine form, with Hoban and Hoare both frustrated by his excellent shot stopping.
Perth's team kept asking questions though and excellent play from Dane Massey teed up Michael Duffy who pulled one back.
And there was excitement from the restart when pressure from McEleney and a Duffy shot drew a handball that gave Hoban the opportunity from the spot.
But Speif called it correctly to make the block, a snapshot of a European year where Dundalk's attacking intentions have been too predictable. Sub Erik Daniel's confident injury-time finish added insult to injury.
Dundalk - Rogers, Gannon, Boyle, Cleary (Hoare 45), Massey; Shields, Murray (McEleney 45); Mountney, McGrath (G Kelly 79), Duffy; Hoban.
Slovan Bratislava - Greif, Medvedev, Abena, Bozhikov, De Marco; Ljubicic, De Kamps; Cavric (Daniel 61), Holman, Ratao (Sukhotskiy 85); Sporar.
Ref - R Schorgenhofer (Austria)