Northern Ireland fell short of qualifying for their second ever European Championships as Michal Duris' extra-time goal helped Slovakia to a 2-1 win in a Euro 2020 play-off final in Belfast on Thursday.
Ian Barraclough's side had lost two Nations League games since their semi-final penalty shoot-out win over Bosnia-Herzegovina last month and they started slowly at Windsor Park, falling behind to Juraj Kuckar's 17th-minute strike.
They clawed their way back into the game three minutes from full-time, though, when Paddy McNair's low cross was diverted into his own net by Milan Skriniar.
But there was to be no fairytale ending for the hosts as substitute Duris powered home in the 110th minute to help Slovakia qualify for back-to-back European Championships and inflict a seventh defat in 11 games on Baraclough's side.
It's all over. Gutted doesn't come close #GAWA pic.twitter.com/V2b6C13mel— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) November 12, 2020
More than 1,000 Northern Ireland fans were allowed into Windsor Park following a loosening of coronavirus-related restrictions but they had little to celebrate during an insipid start from their side.
Moments after Albert Rusnak had flashed over from inside the penalty area, Slovakia went ahead when George Saville's misplaced header allowed Kucka a free run on goal, the Parma midfielder keeping his cool to slot past Bailey Peacock-Farrell from 15 yards.
Niall McGinn blazed over from 20 yards shortly before the interval as the hosts ended the first half without a shot on target.
Northern Ireland looked sharper after the restart, with Conor Washington thumping a half-volley straight at Marek Rodak from a promising position, but Slovakia soon found their shape and comfortably held the hosts at arm's length for large periods.
Baraclough's men ensured an additional 30 minutes, though, when Skriniar diverted McNair's low cross over Rodak from inside the six-yard box.
Substitute Kyle Lafferty came agonisingly close to sealing the win before extra time but his powerful drive from outside the area crashed against Rodak's left-hand post.
That near-miss came back to haunt the hosts 10 minutes before the end of extra time, Duris lashing in at Peacock-Farrell's near post after Jonny Evans had failed to cut out a throughball.
What does it mean? Slovakia punish careless Northern Ireland
Barraclough said his side had the responsibility of "lifting a nation" and for a brief period it looked like they would do just that. A combination of uncharacteristic sloppiness from Evans and poor goalkeeping from Peacock-Farrell was their undoing in extra time, though.
The hosts never looked particularly dangerous in attack, but still managed to carve out 16 shots. The reason they are not celebrating Euro 2020 qualification? Only three of them was on target.
Skriniar dominant for visitors
Own goal aside, Skriniar was a rock for Slovakia. The Inter defender made more successful passes than any player on the field (92), contested a team-high 11 duels and gained possession on 10 occasions - one more than anyone else wearing a white shirt.
Saville endures torrid game
The Middlesbrough midfielder gifted Slovakia the lead with a wayward header and things did not get any better after that. He completed just 15 successful passes and won just three of his 10 duels before he was hauled off in the 66th minute.
Key Opta facts:
- Northern Ireland have been defeated in extra time for the first time in their history.
- Slovakia have won for the first time in 2020, having drawn twice and lost three times since beating Azerbaijan last November.
- Northern Ireland have lost three consecutive home matches for the first time since September 2011-February 2012.
- Baraclough's side have kept just one clean sheet in their last 11 matches - at home to the Netherlands last November.
- Kucka's opener was his third goal of Slovakia's Euro 2020 qualification campaign, which is the joint-most of any player for the side along with Marek Hamsik and Robert Bozenik.
Both sides are in Nations League action on Sunday, with Northern Ireland travelling to Austria and Slovakia hosting Scotland.