Northern Ireland’s Under-21s equalised three times against Spain but fell to a home defeat in Thursday’s Euro 2019 qualifying match at Shamrock Park.
Real Madrid’s Borja Mayoral scored a hat-trick as the Group Two leaders extended their lead over the second-placed Northern Irish to five points.
Mikel Oyarzabal got the other two for Spain who have won all five qualifiers.
For Northern Ireland, Shane Lavery scored twice after defender Liam Donnelly had netted a penalty.
Northern Ireland play Iceland at the Coleraine Showgrounds on Monday.
Only the winners of the nine groups – plus hosts Italy – qualify automatically for the 2019 European Under-21 Championship finals.
The opening exchanges in Thursday’s match were quite even but it was group favourites Spain who took the lead on 14 minutes as Real Sociedad winger Oyarzabal netted with a low first-time shot.
Northern Ireland equalised through Donnelly’s penalty in the 29th minute after Crusaders man Gavin Whyte had been fouled by Mikel Merino close to the bye-line.
It was Newcastle United midfielder Merino who supplied a fine through ball from which Oyarzabal scored to edge the visitors into a 2-1 lead in the 44th minute.
But Northern Ireland hit back to level again in first-half stoppage-time.
After a ball in from the left, Hartlepool defender Donnelly’s shot looked to be going in but Lavery made sure with the final touch right on the goal-line.
But once again, Northern Ireland did not manage to stay on level terms for long.
Less than two minutes had been played in the second half when striker Mayoral scored with a clever back flick from Carlos Soler’s low delivery from the right.
However, Ian Baraclough’s boys responded for a third time with Lavery switching onto his right to fire a strong shot past Alaves keeper Antonio Sivera.
Mayoral shot in at the far post to restore the Spanish lead on 74 minutes and then headed his side’s fifth near the end.
What they said
NI manager Ian Baraclough: “We are disappointed to lose the game and when we look back at how we conceded goals we will be disappointed.
“But the lads deserve great credit for the attitude and commitment they showed in fighting back three times, because a lot of teams would have crumbled.
“It gives us massive encouragement and we feel we can go now and get three points against Iceland on Monday.”