Dundalk suffered a disappointing 2-0 loss in the first leg of their Europa League second round qualifier against Croatian giant Hajduk Split at Oriel Park.
In the early stages, Hajduk looked to be focusing on hurting Dundalk down their right, and on nine minutes that approached paid dividends.
Nikola Vlasic was set free down the flank and sent a perfect cross to the head of prickly customer Mijo Caktas, who nodded the ball simply to the corner of the net.
But that goal jarred the hosts, roared on by a raucous support, into life. Patrick Hoban headed a Darren Meenan free-kick just wide of the post in the aftermath as they pressed for an immediate equaliser.
A good move on 15 minutes saw Hoban again cause problems in the air, this time sending a free back-post header from an inch-perfect John Mountney delivery into Dante Stipica’s arms.
Split still remained a threat, which was to be expected from a side with World Cup stars and good recent European pedigree. Sandro Gotal should have done better when he wriggled away from Richie Towell in the box, but he scuffed his effort wide.
The Lilywhites created their best chance of the half in the 25th minute when the exceptional Sean Gannon robbed Antonio Milic of the ball and crossed for Hoban, who drove the ball against the post on his first start in Europe.
Two more decent openings came their way before the break, with birthday boy Towell curling an effort over following a Dane Massey cut-back and then blazing a second strike over after snatching at the effort.
Hajduk came out much the better side after the restart, with Gotal and Avdija Vrsajevic (who scored for Bosnia and Herzegovina at the World Cup) shooting wide for the side who qualified virtue of a third-place league finish in Croatia last season.
Again, Dundalk responded strongly and had their opportunities. Donal McDermott’s introduction brought something different and he was involved in the move which saw Towell drill just off target on 68 minutes.
Despite enjoying plenty of possession, clear opportunities for Dundalk were few and far between, and the home side conceded a second goal with just 15 minutes to go. Kouassi made the most of a lucky break on the right as he crossed to the back post where Nikola Blasic was on hand to thump the ball home and leave things looking bleak for the Lilywhites ahead of the return leg.
Dundalk: Cherrie; Gannon, Gartland, Boyle, Massey; Towell, Shields (Higgins 73); Meenan, Mountney (McDermott 57), Horgan (McMillan 82); Hoban. Unused subs: Rossiter, Byrne, Griffin, Sava (GK).
Hajduk Split: Stipica; Vrsajevic, Maloca, Milovic, Milic; Vlasic, Bradaric (Maloku 81), Caktas, Kouassi (Basic 78), Gotal, Maglica (Andelkovic 58). Unused subs:Mikanovic, Basic, Nizic, Maloku, Jozinovic, Andelkovic, Kalinic (GK).
Referee: Markus Hameter (Austria).