The Irish League flag no longer flies in Europe — but 10 man Cliftonville came oh so close to ensuring it signed off on a positive note last night.
Eddie Patterson's men were, thanks to Liam Boyce's first-half strike, within six minutes of a famous triumph over CSKA Sofia but the sending off of defender Ciaran Donaghy ultimately told in the end when, just as in the first leg, the visitors bagged two late goals to condemn the Reds to a harsh defeat.
Patterson made just one change to the side which started in Bulgaria last week with Kieran O'Connor coming in for the suspended Stephen Garrett but it was the visitors who made the more assured start, showing patience in abundance in their attempts to carve out an opening, although they should have taken a 16th minute lead when the unmarked Spas Delev was guilty of ball-watching when he should really have been capitalising on a superb delivery to him at the back post.
Delev tried his luck from a little further out soon later but was denied by a superb fingertip save from John Connolly before Cliftonville saw claims for a penalty waved away.
Boyce attempted to work his way past Todor Yanchev just inside the area and it seemed the big defender used his hand to stop the ball, but Russian referee Maxim Layushkin ignored their pleas.
Delev came closer still to breaking the deadlock seven minutes before the interval when, following a fine flick from Marcos Antonio Malachias and then a lay-back from Dimitar Iliev, he thundered his 20-yard strike against the crossbar.
Boyce demonstrated greater accuracy in front of goal when he put Cliftonville ahead just three minutes later. The lively George McMullan picked the striker out at the edge of the area and, after trading passes with Chris Scannell, continued his run inside and produced a cool finish to hand his side a half-time advantage.
The dismissal of Donaghy on 66 minutes was a source of confusion and frustration for the Belfast side; ref Layushkin appearing to cite dissent as he ordered the defender off the pitch.
Cliftonville nevertheless showed stern resistance and even came close to going 2-0 up on 82 minutes only for Peter Hutton's goalbound header to be blocked.
CSKA avoided the embarrassment of defeat of their part-time opposition two minutes later when Tomi Kostadinov sent a sensational 30-yard blast into the top corner and things would get worse for Cliftonville — and McMullan specifically — soon later.
Attempting to diffuse a potentially worrying situation at the back, the midfielder attempted to nod possession to goalkeeper Connolly only for Malachias to steal in and touch Sofia into a 5-1 aggregate lead which doesn't even come close to telling the story of two excellent Cliftonville performances in the tie.
CLIFTONVILLE: Connolly, R Scannell, B Holland, Donaghy, McMullan, C Scannell, Hutton, Caldwell, Boyce, Catney, O'Connor. Subs: Fleming, Smyth (for O'Connor, 74 mins), McKane, Patterson (for Catney, 79 mins), C Burns
CSKA: Karadzhov, Vidanov, Aquaro, Popov, Trifonov, Yanchev, Grandin, Yelev, Delev, Ilien, Malachias. Subs: Chavdarov, Dechev, Galchev (for Yanchev, 66 mins), Tonev, Kostadinov (for Delev, 80 mins), Miguel (Iliev, 58 mins), Saidhodza
REFEREE: Maxim Layushkin (Russia)