Shades of Suwon in the Tehelne Pole stadium tonight.
Agonising. A cruel way to go out, and no-one will be more devastated than Alan Browne and Matt Doherty, whose missed penalties ended their side’s Euro finals bid with Browne seeing his effort saved before Doherty crashed his off the crossbar.
This was the first penalty shoot-out involving Ireland since that night in Suwon in 2002, when Spain ended their World Cup finals adventure.
On that occasion it finished 3-2 in favour of Ireland’s opponents – this time it was 4-2, but the net effect was the same.
On this occasion, Ireland’s poor finishing throughout the 120 minutes of play was reflected in their spot-kick taking.
Stephen Kenny promised his team would try to take the game to their opponents in Bratislava.
So it proved, and when the disappointment of not making the European finals next summer fades, there can be a lot of encouragement taken from the performance.
The frustrating thing is that Ireland had the chances to win this play-off before the drama of spot-kicks was needed.
Yes, Shane Duffy had to perform heroics with a magnificent goal-line clearance in the 74th minute.
The best fell to Conor Hourihane, who missed a sitter 11 minutes later, hitting Kucka with a shot from his weaker right foot. He’ll have nightmares about that one.
Fellow Corkman Browne had a great opportunity before that, when he had time to beat goalkeeper Rodak but his near post effort was seen all the way by the Fulham netminder.
Browne was very good after coming on for the unfortunate James McCarthy just after the hour mark, providing a threat as the most advanced midfielder.
But he was left to rue a second opportunity, this time in the first period of extra-time, when his effort hit the post.
By the finish, these two evenly-matched sides had taken 12 shots on target each. Even Kenny was feeling the pressure in the end as he earned himself a yellow card for something he said to ref Clement Turpin.
You must be ready for anything in this new normal and so it proved in the Slovakian capital.
It was the last thing he would have hoped for, but Kenny had to make important changes on the day of the biggest game of his managerial career, with Aaron Connolly and Adam Idah forced to stand down from duty as close contacts of the second FAI staff member to test Covid-19 positive since Tuesday.
Neither was earmarked to start but it was unfortunate, given what they could have provided by way of a cutting edge – something that was largely missing from the visitors, and ultimately to their cost.
Kenny has spoken before about Connolly’s effectiveness in certain games and, on this occasion, it was to be as an impact sub as Kenny needed James McClean’s ability to get up and down against a full-back who enjoys getting forward.
It took 24 and a half minutes for another first; a first VAR check in a game involving Ireland, and it occurred in the Slovakia penalty box. Alas for the visitors, the check came up negative in terms of a handball by a home defender.
If not a first, then it was certainly a rare sight to see Ireland try to take the game to their opponents away from home.
Kenny promised it would happen and, despite the absence of Connolly’s rapier-thrust on the left-side of a three-man attack, the approach that was fitfully put into operation in last month’s Nations League games against Bulgaria and Finland worked better here.
It was five years to the day since Darron Randolph came on for the injured Shay Given against Germany, and provided the famous goal assist for Shane Long with that booming long ball forward.
But route one is largely off the agenda now.
Against the backdrop of echoing shouts of direction and encouragement from both camps, the visitors looked to pass their way through a team that on paper looked pretty similar to themselves.
As expected, however, chances were at a minimum.
As early as the first minute, Callum Robinson did well to win possession with his harrying on the edge of the hosts’ box but white shirts were slow to offer support.
In fact the visitors had to wait until the 36th minute for a real opportunity to present itself, and McClean squandered it when gifted a chance 12 yards out, swinging a shot at centre-back Valjent, but encouragingly it came at the end of a very patient move.
Ireland stepped it up after the break and those chances for Hourihane and Browne were followed in extra-time by chances for the excellent David McGoldrick and Browne in extra-time.
The visitors showed patience and poise for large chunks of the game, and had the upper hand.
As promised, it was a big improvement on last month, when the players were still in pre-season. Unfortunately a goal didn’t come, not even with a late cameo from Long.
The heart of Ireland’s defence was under a spotlight after being exposed in both games last month.
Shane Duffy held his hands up afterwards, saying that he needed game time, and on loan to Celtic he has got plenty of that.
There was a better understanding between Duffy and John Egan on this occasion.
The main problem was how Ireland dealt with Slovakia on the counter.
Early on, it took McClean to race back to get an important touch after Ireland were wide open at the back when a corner-kick of their own came to nothing.
The threat was repeated just before half-time when, from another corner of their own, Slovakia broke at pace, working a three on two overlap.
This time it was Hendrick who intervened in time, although Duda still forced Randolph into a superb save before, from the resulting corner, the Bundesliga midfielder’s bicycle kick almost found the bottom corner of the net.
In fairness to Egan and Duffy, they worked confidently in tandem in the second half and Duffy earned the plaudits for his brilliant goal-line clearance in the 74th minute.
MIRROR IMAGE CRACKS
The similarity between the two sides didn’t end with the coronavirus robbing them of two players each.
This was a meeting of the 36th (Slovakia) and 37th (Ireland) ranked sides in the world. They had the same points earned and same goal difference from their qualification campaigns – and both finished last in their first Nations League campaigns.
Wait, there’s more. The managers in the dug-outs weren’t the same as the ones who were there for the qualifiers.
Not surprisingly, there was little between them on the pitch and, in the end, it took penalties to divide them.