Northern Ireland's Euro 2020 dreams fell at the final hurdle as Michal Duris' extra-time winner sent Slovakia to next summer's finals with a 2-1 win at Windsor Park.
Slovakia had led for most of normal time with the opening goal handed to them by George Saville, whose poor backwards header was pounced upon by Juraj Kucka to fire home from the edge of the box (17).
A much-improved second-half performance from the hosts was finally rewarded three minutes from full-time when Paddy McNair's cross was bundled past his own goalkeeper by Inter Milan defender Milan Skriniar, which took the tie to extra-time.
But some more poor defending allowed a loose ball to find Duris with 10 minutes of the extra half-hour remaining, and after Bailey Peacock-Farrell allowed his shot to beat him at his near post, Northern Ireland could find no way back as their qualification hopes were extinguished in the play-off final.
Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell (5), Dallas (6), Cathcart (7), Evans (6), Lewis (6), Davis (6), Saville (5), McNair (7), McGinn (6), Magennis (5), Washington (5).
Subs: Thompson (6), Whyte (6), Lafferty (7), Boyce (6), Flanagan (5), Ferguson (5).
Away Team: Rodak (5), Pekarik (7), Satka (7), Skriniar (6), Hubocan (6), Lobotka (5), Rusnak (7), Kucka (7), Hamsik (6), Mak (6), Duda (5).
Subs: Duris (7), Hrosovsky (6), Mraz (6), Gregus (5), Gyomber (n/a).
Man of the match: Juraj Kucka
How Northern Ireland went so close, yet so far
Northern Ireland have not started games well under Ian Baraclough - they were yet to score the first goal in a game under him - but in front of just over 1,000 home fans, they began at a good tempo.
Unable to turn their territory into opportunities, however, Slovakia grew in confidence and increasingly began to cause problems on the flanks. But their goal would owe little to quality, with a mistimed backwards header from Saville pounced on by Kucka, who strode forward to beat Peacock-Farrell.
Josh Magennis should have tested Rodak with a free header from Paddy McNair's corner minutes later but misjudged his effort. Only moments before the break, they threatened again, with Stuart Dallas and Niall McGinn both missing the target with wayward efforts in quick succession.
As has become increasingly familiar, the only similarity between Northern Ireland's first and second-half performances was the numbers on their backs - and in harrying and pressing their visitors from the restart, they looked a different prospect altogether.
- Ian Baraclough's only change from Northern Ireland's win over Bosnia-Herzegovina saw the injured Corry Evans replaced by Conor Washington.
- New Slovakia Stefan Tarkovic made six changes to his side, including a return for Inter Milan defender Milan Skriniar.
Eight minutes into the second period, Stanislav Lobotka became a victim of the hosts' newfound threat, and from McGinn's interception, Conor Washington turned in the box before shooting straight at Rodak when he should have levelled.
But real chances remained at a premium after that near-miss, including the hosts' equaliser when it finally came, three minutes from time. McNair found space on the right flank and after reaching the byline pulled the ball to a long queue of players in the six-yard box. However, it took only first man Skriniar to clumsily divert the ball past his own goalkeeper and bring them level.
Into extra-time, the game went with Northern Ireland finally enjoying the bit between their teeth, and influential substitute Kyle Lafferty coming close to capping his superb cameo with a goal when glancing McNair's volley goalwards, but straight at Rodak.
At the other end, with the experienced Craig Cathcart forced off through injury, Tom Flanagan's decision to step into midfield left the hosts' backline exposed. Kucka's ball towards Duris deflected off Evans' unwitting backside and into the Slovakia forward, who kept his composure to beat Peacock-Farrell's weak dive at his near post.
Evans nearly made amends with one of the final kicks of the game when Jordan Thompson's glorious cross found him unmarked six yards out. But just as Rodak kept out his poor header with ease, so too did Slovakia see off any hopes of another late fightback to qualify for only their second European Championships finals.
What the manager said...
Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough told Sky Sports: "There's not a great deal you can say. We gave everything, we couldn't have asked for any more effort. The game plan was to put them under as much pressure as possible, put the ball in the box as much as possible, I think we did that.
"I'm sure people will pick out certain things, but that's the worst I've felt after a game, for sure. For a group of players who are so good to work with, a credit to themselves and families, and never know when to lay down and die.
"That happened tonight. For me it's tough to come up with any words of consolation."
- Northern Ireland have been defeated in extra-time for the first time in their history.
- Slovakia have won for the first time in 2020, drawing twice and losing three times since beating Azerbaijan last November.
- Northern Ireland have lost three consecutive home matches for the first time since September 2011-February 2012.
- Northern Ireland have kept just one clean sheet in their last 11 matches, at home to Netherlands last November.
- Juraj Kucka's opener was his third goal of Slovakia's EURO 2020 qualification campaign, the joint-most of any player for the side along with Marek Hamsik and Robert Bozenik. It was his first goal for the national side since October 2019 when he netted against Wales.
Northern Ireland have a Nations League double header against Austria and Romania coming up before the international break concludes, with both live on Sky Sports.
Their visit to Austria is live on Sky Sports Football this Sunday from 7.30pm; Kick-off at 7.45pm. Then see them host Romania in their final group game live on Sky Sports Mix next Wednesday from 7.30pm; Kick-off at 7.45pm.