DUNDALK'S hopes of clinching a place in the Champions League group stages now look slim after falling to a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Polish champions Legia Warsaw in the first leg play off tie at the Aviva Stadium.
After holding their own against an experienced side containing three players who had played for their countries at Euro 2016, Dundalk fell behind to a hugely controversial penalty converted by Hungarian international Nemanja Nikolic eight minutes into the second-half.
The game ended in heartbreaking fashion for the Lilywhites when Legia substitute Aleksandar Prijovic snatched a second goal with virtually the last kick of the game, deep into stoppage time.
Dundalk now face the prospect of scoring three times in the return leg in Warsaw next Tuesday if they are to keep aline their hopes of Champions League football in the autumn.
Before the game Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny spoke about the importance of his side concentrating on their own strengths, rather than worry about the quality of the opposition, and they certainly began the game on the front foot against a Legia side whose starting eleven included nine full internationals.
Within two minutes they had created the first chance of the game, with a good early cross from John Mountney finding Patrick McEleney, who headed over from a good position.
McEleney, who was prominent throughout the first-half, had another effort on 12 minutes, but he shot over at the end of a good build up.
From then on, the first half was a generally cagey affair, with neither keeper having a shot to save, although Legia keeper Malarz had to react quickly to push away a Darryl Horgan cross that curled into the six yard box.
But Dundalk never looked out of place against experienced opponents, and they were given a good reception by a crowd of over 30,000 as they left the field at half-time.
— Newstalk Sport (@NewstalkSport) August 17, 2016
Dundalk had the first effort of the second half when a storming run through the middle by Chris Shields ended with him squaring the ball to Darryl Horgan, whose well struck shot was comfortably collected by Malarz.
But the major talking point of the evening arrived nine minutes into the second half, when Legia were awarded a penalty.
Dundalk were caught out by a ball through the middle, and Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikolic advanced in on goal before being forced wide by Dundalk keeper Gary Rogers.
Nikolic checked and squared the ball to Steeven Langil who fired in a shot that hit the trailing arm of Dundalk defender Andy Boyle as he lunged to block the shot, and the referee had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot.
After the Dundalk protests had been waved away and Boyle yellow carded, Nikolic tucked the resultant spot kick into the bottom corner of the net to put Legia 1-0 ahead.
It was a bitter blow for Dundalk, who had been well in the game up to that point, and as the half wore on Legia began to enjoy more possession, and began playing with a confidence and assurance that had been lacking in the first half.
But Dundalk kept pushing forward when the opportunity arose, and two minutes from time, a surging run from Ronan Finn set up a chance for fellow substitute Ciaran Kilduff, but the striker fired over from 12 yards when he should really have hit the target.
However, as the game entered the final minute of stoppage time, Legia delivered a killer blow with a second goal, substitute Aleksandar Prijovic exchanging passes with Tomasz Jodlowiec before producing a great finish to coolly clip the ball over the advancing Rogers.
Although Legia looked impressive after opening the scoring, the final result was harsh on Dundalk, and speaking on RTE afterwards, Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny was in no doubt that the penalty decision was the turning point in the game.
"I'm hugely disappointed, it was never a penalty", he said. "You can't give big decisions with huge ramifications on a whim like that.
"It was really poor from the referee and I'm not happy with that decision at all. That cost us the game. That was a critical moment in the game and it was not a deliberate handball."