In truth, they can’t afford to complain too much. After impressing hugely in Belarus, they simply could not reproduce the same level of performance, let alone better, at home. And had BATE Borisov made more of a string of chances that came their way, especially in the first half, they would have had this game and the tie sown up well before the end.
“Overall they probably deserved to go through,” admitted Dundalk skipper Stephen O’Donnnell. “Hopefully we’ll go on and do ourselves justice in the league and be back next year.”
Lilywhites boss Stephen Kenny said: “We’d a couple of great chances and we didn’t take them.”
Dundalk showed two changes from their starting eleven in the first leg, Ronan Finn and Darren Meenan coming in for Chris Shields and John Mountney, as manager Stephen Kenny looked to give his side every chance of claiming the goal they needed to go through — as long, of course, as their less than watertight back four were able to keep the Belarusian side at bay. But this time, while the clean sheet was secured, if more than a touch fortuitously, it was at the other where Dundalk ended up paying the price.
After his unpunished head-butt on Dane Massey in the first leg, Vitali Rodionov played the designated role of pantomime villain at Oriel Park, his every touch booed by the restricted capacity crowd of 3,200. But even after Brian Gartland clattered him heavily in the first minute, the striker was quick to show his threat, blazing a volley over the bar from a promising position as BATE came alarmingly close to grabbing an early away goal.
And, indeed, it was the visitors who continued to pose much the greater goal threat as the first half progressed, playing with penetration on the counter-attack but failing to make the most of a number of inviting chances to directly test Gary Rogers in the Dundalk goal.
With Richie Towell forced to play deep and Daryl Horgan struggling to make an impact, it was somewhat against the run of play that Dundalk almost made the crucial breakthrough in the 25th minute, Ronan Finn capitalising on a giveaway ball to send Dave McMillan running directly at goal. The home crowd were on their feet but, though the striker was able to beat the last defender to give himself a clear sight of the target, ‘keeper Chernik — who frequently looked distinctly uncomfortable in the air — made his most significant contribution of the night by quickly coming off his line to block the left-footed shot.
Almost immediately at the other end, it was Rogers’ turn to impress, his agile leap and safe hands stopping a curving free-kick from BATE’s impressive attacking full back Filip Mladenovic.
Five minutes from the break, as the opposition upped the tempo, Sean Gannon had to clear off his line after towering centre-half Nemanja Milunovic got a touch to a deep free kick at the far post and, one minute later, BATE came even closer when Ihar Stasevich crashed a shot against the crossbar with the Dundalk rearguard teetering on the brink after a sustained spell of pressure. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say the half-time whistle came as a welcome reprieve for the Lilywhites.
Still, the tie still hung firmly in the balance, the potential significance of one goal either way making for a nervier, scrappier second 45 for both sides, with spills as much in evidence as thrills. Substitute Nemanja Nikolic came close to doubling the visitors’ advantage from a tight angle at the end of a sweeping move in the 74th minute but, with Horgan seeing a bit more of the ball and getting some telling crosses into the box, the Oriel faithful also knew that it would take just one moment of luck or inspiration to tilt the tie decisively in Dundalk’s favour.
But neither materialised, the referee’s final whistle signalling the end of Dundalk’s European dream amidst some bad-tempered scenes as the two teams left the pitch.
And so it’s back to domestic matters for Stephen Kenny and his players, with the visit of Cork City on Sunday in a top of the table clash now taking centre-stage for the defending champions who must now quickly lift themselves as this heavy blow.
Rogers, Gannon, Boyle, Gartland, Massey, Mountney, Finn (Mountney 76), Towell, O’Donnell, Meenan (Shields 56), Horgan (Byrne 82), McMillan
Chernik, Zhaunerchyk, Milunovic, Dubra, Mladenovic, Stasevich, Karnitski (Sihnevich 90), Aleksiyevich (Nikolic 67), Baha, Gordiechuk (Ryas 86), Rodionov.
Stavros Tritsonis (Greece)