'This has to hurt' - Stephen Kenny fury as Dundalk horror show ends Euro ambitions
AEK Larnaca 4 Dundalk 0 (AEK win 4-0 on aggregate)
It was almost an hour after the full-time whistle when Stephen Kenny emerged from the visiting dressing room located in a tunnel below the AEK Arena.
Europe has been the stage for some of his greatest days as Dundalk manager but this evening had descended into one of the worst.
This was his heaviest defeat since taking charge, with a four-goal thrashing a complete break from character for a side that had won 16 out of their 17 games since their defeat to Waterford in May.
When Dundalk encountered superior forces during their magical 2016 European journey, they didn't lose any game by more than a goal.
In that context, this was a drubbing. AEK Larnaca were the better side but they didn't have to work exceptionally hard to score three before half-time and seize control.
The 32-degree heat which made water breaks mandatory was a factor - but it doesn't function as an acceptable excuse for the basic errors that gave the Cypriots the initiative.
And Kenny did not cite that as a factor as he pulled no punches in his assessment of a dire display.
The priority this year is regaining the league title - as evidenced by the absence of rotation in Sunday's win over Bohemians - and the champions route offers a kinder passage to European success. But Kenny takes pride in solid European displays and this had clearly dented it.
"This has to hurt," he stressed, "I won't tell the players to park this. It has to hurt.
"We're disappointed tonight and the players understand it's not acceptable. We're capable of a lot better than that."
A tie that was described as 'evenly poised' was done and dusted by half-time.
Larnaca coach Andoni Iraola had said on the eve of the match that he had spotted weaknesses in Dundalk during last week's scoreless draw and he introduced crafty Spanish winger Tete in order to exploit them.
The 33-year-old hugged the left touchline, leaving right-back Sean Hoare with a dilemma, and the genesis of AEK's success was how they found Dundalk out in that area of the pitch. Dylan Connolly's tracking back was also an issue.
Larnaca's ball retention was superior and they managed to lure Dundalk out of position before executing a killer pass that found space in behind.
There were warning signs in the early minutes, with Daniel Cleary booked as Dundalk were pulled out of shape. The disappointing aspect about the breakthrough goal was that it actually came after a promising Dundalk counter that was cleared.
Before they could regroup, Macedonian international Ivan Trickovski made a run that Hoare was slow to track and he was left playing catch-up as he angled a right footer beyond Rogers.
Larnaca added another before the first water break. This was even more straightforward, with a long pass from Joan Truyols finding Tete who caught Hoare out of position and found himself with just Rogers to beat. A cheeky chip did the rest.
"Sean just completely switched off," said Kenny, "He didn't even see the player. I can't explain it really.
"The defending for the goals was just nowhere near good enough. In that period where they've scored two, our heads dropped completely.
Dundalk did try and muster a fightback and had a strong appeal for a penalty rejected when Jamie McGrath was tripped into the box. That might have given them some momentum, but Larnaca escaped and found another ahead of the interval.
It was more of the same as the play shifted towards Tete with Hoare in the firing line and Connolly tardy when it came to getting back to offer protection. His cross found Trickovski who forced the ball past Gary Rogers after the keeper blocked his initial header.
Kenny took action at the break, and unsurprisingly his changes centred on the right side. Hoare moved into centre half, replacing Cleary who was hooked along with Connolly. Sean Gannon came in at right-full and Patrick McEleney was brought into midfield with Jamie McGrath shifted right. From the outset, there was a better balance.
However, Larnaca didn't need to push for another goal, and maintained control of the situation even though Dundalk were more dangerous in general play. After a let-off when Trickovski struck the post, a period of Dundalk pressure followed.
"Sean and Patrick were very influential," said Kenny, who admitted that he was tempted to make changes during the first half and might regret not taking a risk on injury doubt Gannon who showed no ill effects.
An injury to Hoare wasted his third sub, with Dane Massey brought in. He did threaten with a header and there were half chances for Pat Hoban and Michael Duffy too, but Larnaca were unflustered and added a fourth before the end when sub Joan Tomas scored with his first touch.
The detail had become an irrelevance at that juncture.
"We can't blame the heat," said Kenny, "We committed basic errors and we got punished.
"They stopped us playing out too easily. We needed to be braver. We need to have better movement and our general passing wasn't at the level that it needs to be.
"Sometimes you just need to hang in there when a team gets the run on you like that and to see a period out. It's a different game in the second half and they didn't look as good as they did. It was too comfortable for them."
For his players, a quiet and uncomfortable journey home beckoned.
AEK Larnaca - Ramirez, Silva, Truyols, Gonzalez, T Ioannou; Larena (Nacho 70), Hevel; Acoran (Tomas 86), A Giannou, Tete (Konstantinou 80); Trickovski.
Dundalk - Rogers, Hoare (Massey 63), Gartland, Cleary (Gannon 45), Jarvis; Shields, Benson; Connolly (McEleney 45), McGrath, Duffy; Hoban.
Ref - F Jovic (Croatia)