A 0-0 draw against FC Porto was not enough to send FC Artmedia into the last 16 but the Slovakian champions depart the UEFA Champions League with their heads held high.
Failure to defeat the 2003/04 UEFA Champions League winners last night saw Vladimír Weiss's plucky side finish third in qualifying Group H, behind FC Internazionale Milano and Rangers FC, but considering the odds stacked against them, it was still a remarkable return.
"We have to accept that Inter are one of the top clubs in Europe, but I don't think we were outclassed by the other teams in our group," Weiss told uefa.com. "I am really proud of my players, they gave their best and maybe I will never have another chance to coach a dedicated team with such model attitude.
"We hope our brave squad stays together in the winter break despite a number of concrete offers from famous teams," added the coach. "We are also keeping an eye out for other footballers, from the Slovak and Czech leagues in particular, to reinforce our squad."
The final act of Artmedia's UEFA Champions League debut took place on a waterlogged pitch in Bratislava. While the home side battled bravely for a goal, one would not come. "We might have had a penalty in the second half, but I can't complain," said Weiss. "Justice in football is often erratic."
'A little frustrated'
"Of course we are a little frustrated," added central defender Ondrej Debnár. "We expected our pressure after the break to tell and had two or three chances to score. But on the positive side, there is still the UEFA Cup. We hope to face an attractive team and continue to play like we have this autumn."
Slovakia coach Dušan Galis, the captain of the Czechoslovakia side that won the 1976 UEFA European Championship Anton Ondruš and Slovak Football Association president František Laurinec all watched last night's match hoping for a miracle, but perhaps the miracle was that Artmedia got so far.
It has certainly been a remarkable campaign, and one that could have ended very early indeed had Pavol Staňo not scored a goal in the 121st minute of their home game against Kazakhstan's FC Kairat Almaty in the second leg of their first qualifying round fixture back in July.
That success was followed by Artmedia's stunning win against Celtic FC, by virtue of a 5-0 win in Bratislava on 27 July which the Glasgow giants could not quite cancel out in the second leg, and finally a 4-3 win on penalties against FK Partizan following 210 minutes of football without a goal.
That third qualifying round success opened the door to the group stage. Inter beat them twice, 1-0 in Bratislava and 4-0 in Milan, but none of the other sides could better them. Artmedia earned two draws against Rangers and won 3-2 at Porto before narrowly failing to complete a double on Matchday 6.
Nonetheless, playing European football beyond the winter break marks a stunning achievement for Artmedia and arguably the crowning glory of Slovakian club football since the break up of the former Czechoslovakia.
'Happy and sad'
"We are happy and sad at the same time," said Artmedia captain Balázs Borbély as he reflected on the result. "We were so close to a remarkable success. But we will have another chance to play in Europe [in the UEFA Cup] in a few weeks. We will do our best there."
• Borbély entered the uefa.com chatroom after Matchday 6 to talk in more depth about Artmedia's achievements. Click here to read what he had to say.
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