On a night that promised so much for Irish football, it was up to KRC Genk to spoil the occasion and this they did, running out 2-1 winners in front of a sold out 6,745 crowd in Turner's Cross.
It was the turn of Thomas Buffel and Sebastien Dewaest to play party spoilers as they cancelled out Alan Bennett’s second half strike to give Genk a 3-1 aggregate victory over the two legs.
Cork City manager John Caulfield didn’t make any changes to the starting 11 which lost 1-0 away in the Luminus Arena last week, whereas the opposition made one change, Neeskens Kebano coming into the starting line-up to replace Nikolas Karelis who dropped to the bench.
Turner's Cross was sold out for the first time since the Setanta Cup Final back in 2008 when City defeated Glentoran 2-1. However, the permutations before the game meant that if a similar score line occurred tonight then the visitors would progress to the fourth round of the completion.
Martin O’Neill was in attendance at the fixture along with FAI CEO John Delaney as they hoped to see the home side record a famous victory and claim another €200,000 to what has already been claimed so far during this European campaign.
The opening minutes of the game were played at a high intensity but neither goalkeeper was overly threatened with Genk looking the more likely to open the scoring.
However, City's hopes took a severe dent when they fell behind after 13 minutes following a quick counter-attack. The ball was fed from Leon Bailey – who had a plethora of clubs, namely Liverpool and Chelsea, observing him – to the oncoming Buffel who made no mistake shooting past McNulty from inside the box.
Bailey nearly doubled the scoring soon after but his shot was dragged slightly wide of McNulty’s post. Kevin O’Connor saw his shot get tipped over by Marco Bizot but the ‘keeper was a spectator for long periods of the opening 45 minutes.
Kenny Browne, who tried his best at the back during the opening half, fired over from close range on the half hour mark but that was as close as City got to narrowing the deficit in before the break.
Michael McSweeney was struggling with Bailey and the Belgians knew it as they constantly targeted that side, with the result being that the former UCC player didn’t reappear for the second half. Five minutes before half-time, though, Genk doubled their lead when Alejandro Pozuelo’s corner was headed into the net from eight yards by the unmarked Dewaest.
Gearóid Morrissey saw his drive deflected narrowly wide with half time approaching as both sides went to the dressing rooms.
The second half saw a reinvigorated City emerge from under the Shed as they went about closing a deficit that required them to score a minimum of four times, bearing in mind that the last time they managed that feat was against Longford Town on May 29th away in City Calling Stadium.
Mark O’Sullivan had an effort go narrowly wide in the opening five minutes of the second half, and Caulfield sent on fellow attackers Danny Morrissey and Karl Sheppard in a bid to reduce the deficit.
Yet when the Rebel Army finally did manage to pull one back in the 62nd minute, it came from an unlikely source. Bailey was booked for a yellow card and Kevin O’Connor stepped up to swing in the delivery. It was inch perfect and gleefully headed into the net by Alan Bennett.
Bailey was lucky not to see red soon after for a tackle on Steven Beattie and with that the teenager was substituted for Leadro Trossard, who moments after his introduction ran over half the pitch, fooling at least two City players with clever feints, and was only denied a goal by a super save from McNulty.
The veteran ‘keeper was called into action again moments later to deny a Pozuelo free kick from 35 yards, clawing it away from the opposing attackers.
The home support were getting louder in their cheers and chants with the final 20 minutes of the game approaching but Genk were able to soak it all up as they used the counter attacks very well.
Pozuelo, in particular, was making impressive runs that caused the City defence all sorts of problems. Yet the spirit on show from City was evident with fan favourite O’Sullivan seeing his header tipped over by Bizot following an excellent O’Connor pass.
Beattie’s ball over the top found the onrushing O’Sullivan and his header went over the ‘keeper and was dipping, but not quick enough as it went just over the crossbar on 85 minutes.
The last few minutes saw the home side try their best to narrow the game further but to no success as their European odyssey ends for another year.
Kebano had an opportunity to further stretch the lead with the last kick of the ball after Beattie conceded a penalty by bringing him down, but the striker could only hit the crossbar as Kristo Tohver blew the final whistle.
Cork City: Mark McNulty; Michael McSweeney (Danny Morrissey 46), Kenny Browne, Alan Bennett, Kevin O’Connor; Greg Bolger, Gearóid Morrissey (Mark O’Sullivan 46); Steven Beattie, Gary Buckley, Stephen Dooley; Sean Maguire (Karl Sheppard 56).
Subs not used: Matthew Connor, Colin Healy, Gavan Holohan, Ian Turner.
Yellow Cards: Browne (68), O’Sullivan (76), Beattie (91).
KRC Genk: Marco Bizot; Sandy Walsh, Sébastien Dewaest, Dries Wouters, Jere Uronen; Wilfred Ndidi; Thomas Buffel (Holly Tshimanga 82), Alejandro Pozuelo, Neeskens Kebano, Leon Bailey (Leadro Trossard 65); Ally Samatta (Brian Heynen 77).
Subs not used: Nikolas Karelis, Bennard Kumordzi, Dante Vanzeir, Laszlo Koteles.
Yellow Cards: Bailey (62), Ndidi (83).
Referee: Kristo Tohver.
Extratime.ie Man of the Match: Kevin O’Connor (Cork City).