Dundalk crashed out of the Champions League in hugely disappointing fashion after a 3-0 humbling at the hands of Slovenian champions NK Celje at the Ferenc Szusza Stadion.
Basic defensive mistakes at the end of either half cost Vinny Perth's side dearly, with the manager’s future now firmly in the spotlight.
This defeat came on the back of a poor restart to the SSE Airtricity League season, with just two points taken from a possible to nine to date leaving them eight points adrift of league leaders Shamrock Rovers with just 10 games to play of the shortened domestic season.
While Dundalk did up their game compared to recent performances, they were punished for the most basic of errors with Brian Gartland, Sean Hoare and Gary Rogers all coughing up cheap goals that gave Dusan Kosic’s side a flattering winning margin in the end.
While the League of Ireland champions had their chances, their laspes were punished as goals from Luka Kerin, Dario Vizinger and Filip Dangubic gave Celje a first win at this level having only won their first Slovan Prva Liga title last month.
The Louth men at least parachute into the Europa League but after another disappointing display it is hard to see how their season can be turned around at this stage.
It was perhaps no surprise that there was a nervous opening to the game but the Slovenians almost found the breakthrough with the first effort of the game on 14 minutes when the club's top scorer from last season Vizinger was allowed to turn on to his left foot only to curl a shot just wide of the post.
Dundalk could well have been ahead themselves four minutes later when Stefan Colovic’s corner was met by the head of Gartland but his header flashed just over.
Celje had a couple of half chances after that with left back Denis Maranidici denied by a brilliant block from Chris Shields but it was Dundalk who looked the most threatening.
Michael Duffy had two efforts on target before the break but both his header from Sean Gannon’s cross on 34 minutes and his deflected effort five minutes later were comfortable for Matjaž Rozman to save.
Given the side’s recent form, Perth would have been happy to go off at the break on level terms but then came the breakthrough on 43 minutes.
Shields broke up possession in midfield with the loose ball allowing Kerin to nip in behind Gartland, who had tried to nudge him off the ball.
The 21-year-old was not to be denied, however, as he swung a leg at it on the ground to slot past Rogers despite him getting a foot to it.
Things then almost went from bad to worse for Dundalk within 70 seconds of the restart when Ivan Božić’s cross came off Gartland only for Rogers to claw it away to prevent his side from falling further behind.
NK Celje 1-0 Dundalk— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) August 19, 2020
A Dundalk defensive mix-up allows Luka Kerin to get in around the back, and despite being on the ground, manages to flick the ball past Gary Rogers to give Celje the lead just before half-time #rtesoccer https://t.co/LWBhOJgavr pic.twitter.com/myjensyVqb
Dundalk refused to throw in the towel, however, and had two big chances within a minute of each other just before the hour mark. The first arrived on 57 minutes when Duffy pulled back for Jordan Flores at the edge of the box with the Englishman’s left foot strike finger-tipped over the crossbar by Rozman.
Then moments later Shields slipped Duffy in on the left with the winger dropping a shoulder to create space to get a shot away on his left foot but from an acute angle he could only look on in anguish as it flashed across the face of goal.
Celje did threaten to put the game beyond doubt on 59 minutes when Bozic’s cross was flicked on by Vizinger but Rogers made a fine stop to keep it out.
Dundalk continued to knock on the door at the other end with Darragh Leahy screwing a shot just wide from another Duffy delivery
After Božić curled an effort just wide, Perth threw caution to the wind with the introduction of the attacking trio of Sean Murray, Nathan Oduwa and David McMillan but if anything it unsettled his side.
Their best chance of an equaliser came six minutes from the end when Duffy’s free kick deflected off the wall into the path of Patrick Hoban, whose header came back off the upright.
The killer blow arrived on 88 minutes though when Sean Hoare coughed up possession under little or no pressure to Lotric who combined with Vizinger on the break for the latter to slot to an almost empty net.
There would be further salt in the wound in the fifth minute of stoppage time when substitute Filip Dangubić turned in at the second attempt after Rogers had parried a free kick.
On what was Dundalk’s 75th European appearance, this must surely go down as one of their disappointing nights.
NK Celje: Matjaž Rozman; Advan Kadušić, Žan Zaletel, Josip Čalušić, Denis Marandici; Lan Štravs, Matic Vrbanec (Nino Pungaršek 86); Luka Kerin, Mitja Lotrič, Ivan Božić (Jakob Novak 82); Dario Vizinger (Filip Dangubić 93).
Subs not used: Metod Jurhar, Dušan Stojinović, Amadej Brecl, Rok Štraus.
Dundalk: Gary Rogers; Sean Gannon, Brian Gartland (Nathan Oduwa 76), Sean Hoare, Darragh Leahy; Chris Shields (David McMillan 82), Jordan Flores (Sean Murray 69); Stefan Colovic, Patrick McEleney, Michael Duffy; Patrick Hoban.
Subs not used: Aaron McCarey, John Mountney, Daniel Cleary, Daniel Kelly.