THE best that can be said for St Johnstone is that over the past two seasons they have beaten three European teams on the back of excellent away results.

Even so, it will take a minor miracle for them to continue that sequence in Slovakia next week and save their skins in the Europa League.

Spartak Trnava, their little-known visitors with a pocket of about 60 fans, put a goal past them in each half. They were well worth the win, a technically adept and dangerous team who could have subjected Perth to an even harsher score.

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Dave Mackay, St Johnstone's captain, scored a goal in the 93rd minute to give them . . . what? Pride? A remote, outside chance? In consecutive trips to Rosenborg, Minsk and Lucerne, St Johnstone have delivered two wins and a draw. They scored one goal in each of those games and two is the bare minimum they need to survive the second leg.

If they play like they did for much of last night there is no prospect of them troubling Trnava. This, their ninth European fixture in three seasons, delivered the poorest result of them all. Their fans were quiet and resigned long before the end, although Mackay eventually gave them their only kick of the night.

There was no Stevie May. A thigh strain had made him a doubt to start, but even a place on the bench was beyond him. Steven MacLean was up front with David Wotherspoon supporting. Neither of them saw any sort of supply. May's absence was not the reason for the defeat.

Generally, St Johnstone treated the ball like it was a block of plutonium, returning it to their opponents as if it was burning through the leather on their boots. Their failure to retain possession was the fatal flaw and coupled with Spartak's crisp, effective attacking they were asking for trouble. By the time the Slovaks had taken the lead, in the 34th minute, they had already created a handful of scoring chances.

Three men tormented St Johnstone. The little striker, Martin Mikovic, the No.10 in the hole behind him, Jan Vlasko, and the tall, left-sided attacker Ivan Schranz, who finished the night with both goals. When Vlasko fed a ball down the inside left channel to Schranz he had the speed and strength to get on to it and rattle a shot high into Alan Mannus' net while St Johnstone defenders tried in vain to close him down. They were more than worth their lead.

Schranz had an earlier shot beaten away by Mannus, forced him to make another great save with a header, then glanced another one just over the bar. Along with his two accomplices he ran St Johnstone ragged in the first half. Spartak were mobile, physical and sharp. They were ahead of St Johnstone in every department.

When Mikovic did something neat with the ball in midfield it caused Gary McDonald and Frazer Wright to crash into each other, with both falling to the turf in a moment of brief and unintentional comedy. McDonald had come on as a substitute when Chris Millar succumbed to a groin injury after half-an-hour.

At the start of the second half, St Johnstone kept the ball better and imposed themselves. Wotherspoon had an early shot held and then Brian Easton whacked over a cross from the left which Gary Miller really should have buried. He put it wide with a weak header.

It was a temporary rally and Spartak's control was soon tightened by a second goal. Scott Brown played far too risky a pass back to Mannus and Schranz chased it down. Mannus seemed to have clawed it away from his feet but the Spartak man's persistence earned him a second attempt and an easy finish. There would have been a third if Erik Sabo hadn't jabbed a low shot past the post after Vlasko opened up the home defence with another cute pass.

Three minutes from time a Wotherspoon shot kissed the top of the crossbar. Then, in the third minute of stoppage time, Mackay rifled home his goal from a Wotherspoon cross. It gave the tie a faint pulse.

"The goal means the tie isn't over but we need to do a lot better to give ourselves a chance," said St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright, who admitted he was unsure if May would be ready for the second leg.

"The manner of performance in the first half was the most disappointing thing. We gave away too much possession in bad areas and the decision-making was poor. We didn't even compete in the first half and that's not like us. We still have a chance. The tie is still alive. Next week, the real St Johnstone will have to turn up."