Dundalk's hopes of putting Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal to the sword in the Europa League were dashed at the Emirates Stadium, as Ireland’s European hopefuls suffered a comprehensive defeat at the hand of the Premier League giants.
A positive result of any kind would have been one for the ages, but the gap was too much for the 14-time League of Ireland champions to bridge.
The result was expected, but the performance was spirited. Regardless, the real shame was that no loyal Lilywhites fans could travel to experience a genuine glamour tie.
Three goals in five minutes either side of the half-time whistle put paid to any hopes of a historic result. Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Pepe struck, as Arteta gave strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang the night off. They will surely be unleashed against Manchester United on Sunday.
Dundalk had started the brighter in an unfamiliar formation amidst an eerie sitting - an empty 60,000-seater stadium. However, Arsenal’s superiority ultimately showed. They had 24 shots and 15 corners in total and were full value for a routine victory.
Filippo Giovagnoli opted to play five at the back, bringing Andy Boyle back into the team and picking John Mountney and Cameron Dummigan ahead of Sean Gannon and Darragh Leahy out wide.
Dundalk had been to north London before. The club’s veteran goalkeeper Gary Rogers was a newborn when Jim McLaughlin’s Lilywhites were edged out 1-2 by Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1981.
Anything resembling that kind of scoreline at the Emirates on Thursday evening would have represented an excellent scoreline for the visitors. For 42 minutes, it seemed possible, if not entirely plausible.
Dundalk had defended valiantly and restricted the 2018 finalists to half-chances until Rogers’ mistake presented the opportunity for Nketiah to pounce. Rogers missed his attempted punch clear of a Reiss Nelson corner and when the ball struck Dan Cleary, Nketiah showed lightning reactions to finish.
Twenty-four hours after Manchester United had put Bundesliga leaders RB Leipzig to the sword by unleashing some star power from the bench, Arteta left his most potent attacking options in reserve.
Willian, Lacazette and most notably Aubameyang were on the bench, as were big-money signings Gabriel and Thomas Partey. Four of the five were not needed.
That offered opportunities to fringe players like Reiss Nelson, Willock and Nketiah, with the latter two in particular shining. Nketiah’s goal was his third of the campaign and his first since breaking the goals record for England Under-21s earlier this month.
Moments later, another Dundalk error was ruthlessly punished by opponents the calibre of which they had not encountered in the modern era. Nketiah capitalised on Dummigan’s loose pass and ran at the Dundalk defence.
He squared to Pepe and when the Ivorian’s shot was blocked, the ball fell for Willock, who shot into the roof of the net.
GiovagnolI, restricted to a watching brief from afar during last week's defeat against Molde, spent much of the first half prowling the sideline, directing and cajoling his players through sequences of play. He spent much of his time preaching calm, pose and composure.
Whether he chose to disobey a supposed UEFA edict that stated the Pro Licence-less Italian could not oversee proceedings from the technical area - or the rule was no longer applicable - remains to be seen. It mattered little.
With half-time so tantalisingly close, he was forced to revise his interval pep talk. Just 32 seconds after the resumption, which saw Greg Sloggett replace the injured Sean Murray, Arsenal scored their third.
The ball was worked across the box to Pepe, who curled sumptuously into the top corner. Dundalk players' heads dropped, their encouraging opening salvo up in smoke following five minutes of high-class finishing.
Earlier, the visitors had the game’s first chance when debutant Runar Runarsson was forced to tip Patrick McEleney’s drive around the post after just four minutes.
McEleney then started the move that ended in Murray fluffing a shot from John Mountney’s cross.
Dundalk’s mercurial playmaker was withdrawn on the hour, limping off the field. He had been responsible for Dundalk’s better moments going forward, but is now a doubt for Sunday’s key match with St Patrick’s Athletic.
Giovagnoli’s side hardly crossed halfway after the break, a slew of substitutions on both sides working to Dundalk’s favour rather than their opponents. Fears of a drubbing were not realised.
Arsenal: Runar Runarsson, Cedric Soares, Shkodran Mustafi (Dani Ceballos, 61), Granit Xhaka (Kieran Tierney, 74), Sead Kolasinac, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Mohamed Elneny, Joe Willock, Nicholas Pepe (Willian, 61), Eddie Nketiah (Florian Balogun, (74), Reiss Nelson.
Dundalk: Gary Rogers, John Mountney, Brian Gartland, Dan Cleary (Sean Hoare, 53), Andy Boyle, Cameron Dummigan, Chris Shields (Sean Gannon, 62), Sean Murray (Gregory Sloggett, 46), Patrick McEleney (Jordan Flores, 53), Michael Duffy (Stefan Colovic, 70), Patrick Hoban.
Referee: Filip Glova (Slovakia)