Inter Milan’s calamitous season hit a new low on Thursday as they squandered a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 at Israeli club Hapoel Beer-Sheva and suffer the embarrassment of an early Europa League exit.
For a while, it seemed the struggling Italian giants, who had begun the night propping up Group K and had to win to survive, would be given a reprieve thanks to first-half goals from Mauro Icardi and Marcelo Brozovic.
Yet in keeping with a season in which they had already sacked manager Frank de Boer and fans had turned on captain Icardi for his comments about them in his autobiography, everything started to go wrong after the break.
Hapoel, who had caused a sensation by winning at the San Siro in their opening group match, pulled one back with a header from Lucio Maranhao before Inter keeper Samir Handanovic was shown a second yellow in conceding a penalty that Anthony Nwakaeme converted.
Scenting another famous win, the Israelis poured on the pressure against 10 men and Ben Sahar scored the winner in the last minute.
The latest setback left Inter down and out on three points but breathed fresh hope into Hapoel, who moved on to seven points alongside second-placed Southampton, who blew their chance of qualifying in the penultimate round with a 1-0 defeat at Sparta Prague.
Sparta earned their passage into the knockout stages thanks to an 11th minute goal from their Zimbabwean defender Costa Nhamoinesu. It was the first time in nearly 33 years that the Czech club had downed top-flight English opponents.
It sets up a winner-takes-all final group match between Southampton and Hapoel for the second spot.
Fenerbahce put pressure on their big name pursuers in Group A, Feyenoord and Manchester United, as they defeated Zorya Luhansk 2-0 with Miroslav Stoch and Simon Kjaer scoring in the space of eight minutes midway through the second half.
It left the Turkish side on 10 points three clear of Feyenoord and four clear of United before the former European champions from the Netherlands and England met at Old Trafford later on Thursday.
FK Qarabag’s hopes of becoming the first team from Azerbaijan to qualify from the group stages of a UEFA competition were still alive despite being hammered 3-0 at Slovan Liberec, with Nikolai Komlichenko scoring twice.
With PAOK Salonika striking in the 93rd minute through Garry Rodrigues to snatch a dramatic 3-2 win at Fiorentina after the Italian side had come from two down and were seconds away from claiming a last 32 spot, there is still everything to play for in Group J.
Fiorentina, leading on 10 points, visit second-placed Qarabag in their final game with the Azeris on seven points, the same tally as Salonika, who will host Liberec.