St Patrick's Athletics 0 CSKA Sofia 2 (CSKA Sofia win 2-1 on aggregate)
The heartbreak for St Patrick’s Athletic is that their exit from Europe was not a case of a gulf between two teams becoming apparent.
Instead, this was a story of the fine margins, the agony of missed chances with the tie there for the taking, compounded by a controversial penalty that sent Tim Clancy’s side out of the competition when extra time appeared inevitable.
Frustration spilled over into frantic post-match scenes as players clashed on the pitch with the sight of CSKA’s Bradley De Nooijer – who had already received a red card - sprinting down the tunnel after appearing to strike Chris Forrester in the face reflective of the chaos.
Jamie Lennon and Adam O’Reilly had been involved in aggro prior to that, and the latter also received a delayed red from the ref at the edge of the scrum.
There was emotion in the fallout from a Saints perspective, seeing as they were undone here by a debateable penalty call from Romanian official Horatiu Fesnic who pointed to the spot with nine minutes remaining, penalising Harry Brockbank for a handball as he challenged Mauricio Garcez De Jesus.
The CSKA player did not appeal, but his teammates did and the ref made a reasonably late call. Replays suggested the ball had struck De Jesus on the arm too. Ivan Turitsov converted and the Tallaght mood soured, a deflating end to an evening which could have spun another story.
CSKA’s relief said it all, given the pressure they were coming under in this game and their performance emphasised their vulnerability.
At the key moments, the Saints just couldn’t get the job done.
The agony for Clancy is that after preparing and dealing with the CSKA set piece threat in the first leg, they lost the advantage they brought home by conceding from the only corner the guests forced in the opening 45.
Communication was the issue with De Jesus unmarked at the far post when the corner was taken and then able to spin back unmarked into the six-yard box to convert a header. The inquest was laced with a degree of confusion about how it had happened.
There is an ominous feeling when a League of Ireland side falls behind early in a European tie of this magnitude, yet it was misplaced. CSKA did not look to have another gear to go up. New signing Jonathan Lindseth, a Norwegian playmaker, was responsible for a few bright moments, and the goalscorer De Jesus did fire another chance wide but the black shirts were sloppy in terms of defensive application.
When the Saints made runs from deep, space emerged and the tracking was substandard. O’Reilly was the beneficiary, and he really should have levelled when Billy King’s through ball parted the Sofia rearguard.
That said, visiting keeper Gustavo Busatto was alert to get to the edge of the box to narrow the angle. Clancy’s side took encouragement from it, though, and O’Reilly almost got in again before the interval, while left wing-back Anto Breslin also made inroads on more than one occasion with two CSKA players going into the book.
The pattern remained the same after the interval, with CSKA showing glimpses of quality without applying strong pressure and the locals grew in confidence as the minutes elapsed. CSKA began to live on the edge with their defence seeking to push up, with green space behind them.
Under pressure visiting boss Sasa Ilic made a pair of double substitutions in a spell after the hour mark where it was apparent the League of Ireland side were beginning to get on top.
Runs in behind continued to cause issues for CSKA and there was a glorious chance for Breslin, who failed to get a proper connection on a Forrester cross with the goal gaping.
Clancy sprung Serge Atakayi, the supersub in Sofia, and his pace created another glorious opportunity with Busatto parrying his left footer away and O’Reilly was unable to follow-up, with his industry offering so much to his side yet enthusiasm probably just got the better of him in the final third.
Momentum appeared to be powering Clancy’s charges but that all changed with a routine diagonal ball and the penalty call that will take a while to shake from the system, while Clancy was also furious was a free kick awarded to CSKA in the build-up. CSKA finally showed a bit of nous to run down the clock, collect the €1m in prizemoney and set up a playoff tie with Basel. The Saints, on the other hand, will have to set about trying to get back to this level next term.
St Patrick’s Athletic: Anang, Brockbank (Owolabi 81), Grivosti, Redmond; Cotter, O’Reilly, Lennon, Breslin; Forrester, King (Atakayi 65); Doyle
CSKA Sofia: Busatto, Turitsov, Mattheij, Koch, De Nooijer; Vion (Geferson 71), Youga; Yomov (Shopov 62), Lindseth (Tufegdzic 71), Garcez De Jesus; Alvarez (Nazon 62)