Cork 1, Genk 3 (aggregate): What had been flagged as the biggest night in the history of Cork City FC unfortunately fell well short of billing at Turner’s Cross as KRC Genk imposed their superiority to eliminate the home side from the Europa League.
A stirring second-half display meant that City could certainly leave the pitch with their heads held high but there was still no escaping the crushing sense of disappointment for both players and supporters after the Belgian side had put the tie well beyond John Caulfield’s team with two first-half goals.
City were unchanged from the side which had performed with such distinction in the first leg, a supremely composed display which had deserved much more than a narrow 1-0 defeat.
That, in turn, posed the manager and his players the same puzzle which had confronted Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk on Tuesday night in Tallaght: How to strike the right balance between ambition and caution, given that scoring the goal they needed to keep them in the tie could have only a marginally higher priority — especially in the game’s early stages — than avoiding the concession of an away goal to the Belgian side.
What was never going to be in doubt was the full-throated support of the Rebel Army in a full house of 6,900 at a sun-splashed Turner’s Cross, the hometown passion evident from well before kick-off as the faithful in the Shed led the whole ground in roaring on the boys in green.
An up-for-it City initially responded in kind, Stephen Dooley’s trickery on the left asking early questions of the Genk defence and Garry Buckley earning the cheers of the crowd with some assertive work in the middle of the park.
But with their blistering pace, lively movement, and fluent passing, Genk looked even more threatening in the final third, making for an increasingly ominous opening phase to the game for the home support.
And only 13 minutes had elapsed when Cork’s worst fears were realised, the fleet-footed Leon Bailey — scorer of the first-leg winner — this time turning provider as he played a ball across the penalty area for captain Thomas Buffel to sweep high into the net.
Like Dundalk on Tuesday, Cork would now have to score three — and inside 90 minutes as well.
Being forced to chase the game at such an early stage also meant that City were now hugely vulnerable to the counter-attacks being brilliantly orchestrated by Alejandro Pozuelo, but the home side had little option other than to go for it and hope for the best.
Thirty minutes in, after good work by Kevin O’Connor at the byline, Kenny Browne came close with a snap shot over the top in a crowded box but, in a vivid illustration of how open the game had become, almost immediately the defender was called upon to make a crucial block back in his own area to prevent Ally Samata getting his shot away at the end of a typically sweeping Genk move.
And any hope City had of staging a dramatic comeback effectively ended five minutes before the break when the towering Sebastien Dewaest all too easily got his head to a corner to send the ball flying into the net under the noses of the now silenced Shed.
Bad enough that Cork had conceded again but to do so from such a routine set-piece and at such a critical point in the game was especially dispiriting.
A double substitution by John Caulfield at half time saw the manager reshape his side to a 4-4-2 formation, Mark O’Sullivan and Danny Morrsissey coming on for Gearoid Morrissey and Michael McSweeney.
At least it signalled that City were intent on more than mere damage limitation even if their chances of turning the tie around were already negligible. They might be going down, was the message, but not without a fight.
And the home support certainly had cause to find their voice again when O’Sullivan came close with an angled shot just past the far post as City applied concerted pressure before, just short of the hour mark, Caulfield sent on more fresh legs as Karl Sheppard replaced the hard-working Sean Maguire.
And in the 62nd minute City got their reward and finally gave the Rebel Army something tangible to cheer about as veteran defender Alan Bennett rose highest in a crowed box to head home a Kevin O’Connor free kick and cut the deficit to one on the night.
But, of course, that left City still needing three to deliver a footballing miracle and, with Genk often devastating on the break and still looking in the mood to add to their tally, it all made for a long final half-hour for the home side, even if O’Sullivan did produce one fine tip-over save from Marco Bizot with a thumping header from a superb O’Connor cross before going close again with another looping effort which dropped just over the bar.
And there was still time, with the very last kick of the game, for Genk to put a gloss on the scoreline which would have been very harsh on Cork but, to ironic cheers, Neeskens Kebano blasted his penalty kick against the bar.
But, ultimately, it didn’t matter. Unable to match Dundalk’s heroics in Europe, Cork City must now concentrate on trying to overcome their great rivals at home.
McNulty, McSweeney (D. Morrissey), Bennett, Browne, O’Connor, Bolger, Buckley, G Morrissey (Mark O’Sullivan 45), Beattie, Dooley, Maguire (Sheppard 56)
Bizot, Walsh, Dewaest, Wouters, Uronen, Buffel (Tshimanga 83), Pozuelo, Ndidi, Bailey (Trossard 64), Kebano, Samata (Heynan 77) Referee: Kristo Tohver (Estonia)
13 mins – The visitors break the deadlock
City’s positive start is crushed when Genk counter-attack and grab a priceless away goal. Leon Bailey gets in behind the defence and his low cross is met by a first-time Thomas Buffel effort that flies past Mark McNulty. It’s a clinical finish that leaves Cork City requiring three goals to progress.
30 mins – Chances at either end
Leon Bailey is proving a handful and twice goes close to doubling his side’s lead. The winger angles a shot wide of the upright before squandering a better chance, shooting straight at McNulty. City’s Kenny Browne wastes a decent chance by firing over the crossbar.
41 mins – Genk seal their place in the next round
Poor marking from a set-piece proves disastrous for City as Alejandro Pozuelo’s corner is met by a firm Sebastian Dewaest header to make it 2-0 on the night. A goal-bound Gearóid Morrissey shot ricochets off Sean Maguire and wide to conclude a disappointing half for the hosts.
63 mins – Bennett finds the net:
City’s much improved second-half is rewarded with a goal shortly after the hour mark Alan Bennett rises highest to head in a Kevin O’Connor free. The Belgians response is swift with Leandro Trossard embarking on a mazy dribble that requires a McNulty stop to prevent another Genk goal.
90 mins - City go down fighting:
Roared on by their home supporters, City go down fighting with Mark O’Sullivan forcing Genk net-minder Marco Bizot into a terrific save. Neeskens Kebano rattles Cork’s crossbar from a penalty deep into injury time but Genk are full value for their 3-1 aggregate win.
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