Linfield 1-3 Spartak Trnava: Blues' Euro bid is blown apart
(Spartak Trnava win 5-2 on aggregate)
Linfield boss Warren Feeney last night told his players to hold their heads high following their Europa League exit at Windsor Park.
It was always going to be a difficult task for the Blues as they trailed Spartak Trnava 2-1 from the second qualifying round first leg in Slovakia last week.
Even though Stephen Lowry shot the Blues ahead in the first half, Trnava bossed the second period and goals from Erik Sabo, who bagged a sensational brace, and Jakub Vojtus sent the Eastern European through to face PAOK.
"I couldn't have asked for any more," said Feeney. "I thought we had a chance when we took the lead, but there was still a long way to go.
"They moved up a few gears and really dominated after the break. Some of their goals were sensational. But our lads can hold their heads high. They gave everything."
Linfield, spurred on by a big home support, threw caution to the wind and it almost paid off after four minutes when Lowry's low cross was hoofed to safety.
But the Blues were given a fright two minutes later as Emir Halilovic flashed a shot past Ross Glendinning's post.
In the 22nd minute, referee Lauent Kopriwa angered Linfield fans by awarding the visitors a free-kick after Halilovic appeared to slip rather than go down under a Matthew Clarke challenge. Sabo's shot was brilliantly blocked by Lowry.
The referee received more abuse from the irate fans two minutes later when Guy Bates was bundled to the ground inside the penalty box by Lukas Gressak, but the Luxembourg whistler waved play on.
But the transformed south Belfast venue erupted in the 34th minute after Lowry's breakthrough. David Kee whipped in a delicious corner kick and goalkeeper Adam Jakubech flapped hopelessly.
He pushed the ball to the former Coleraine man, who buried a low shot into the net.
Trnava looked to level things before the break and Sabo threaded a pass to Martin Toth, but his low drive was capably dealt with by Glendinning.
The big shot-stopper could do little about Trnava's equaliser in the 54th minute, however. Sabo bore into the Linfield half before unleashing a thundering drive into the bottom corner.
If that was good, Vojtus's goal was even better. He left a posse of players in his wake during a 60-yard dash before steering the ball under Glendinning.
With Linfield legs tiring, Trnava began to turn the screw and they were right out of luck on two occasions when Halilovic and Martin Mikovic both held their heads in frustration after watching their respective shots crash off the post.
Even though Trnava's Milan Bortel was dismissed 10 minutes from time, that man Sabo completed Linfield's misery in the 84th minute when Mikovic sliced through the Blues defence to set up the big striker.
Linfield: Ross Glendinning, Reece Glendinning, Hegarty, Haughey (Ward 75), M Clarke, Lowry, Burns, Kee, Sproule (R Clarke 63), Waterworth, Bates. Subs not used: Millar, Mulgrew, Murray, Quinn, Deane.
FC Spartak Trnava: Jakubech, Vojtus (Jirka 86), Mikovic, Casado, Bortel, Toth, Conka, Sabo, Halilovic (Baez 75), Harba (Mikinic 69), Gressak. Subs not used: Steinhubel, Kostal, Strapak.
Referee: L Kopriwa (Luxembourg).