Clermont Auvergne secured top spot in Pool Four with a hard-fought 19-15 win over a determined Ulster at the Stade Marcel Michelin on Saturday night.
A 60th-minute try from replacement hooker Ti'i Paulo proved the difference between the two teams, who were both assured of quarterfinal qualification prior to kick off.
Paulo barged his way over from close-range to end Ulster's stubborn resistance as Clermont kept their 39-game unbeaten home run intact to stay in the running for a return to the same venue in the last eight.
The sides finished level on 20 points at the top of the pool but Clermont's superior try count in the head-to-head games means it is they who go through as group winners.
Ruan Pienaar kicked five penalties for the 1999 Heineken Cup kings who almost backed up their 41-7 thrashing of Leicester with an equally impressive showing.
After weathering the early storm in what has to be one of liveliest atmospheres in world rugby, Ulster found themselves down to 14 men as a result of a moment of madness from Dan Tuohy.
The in-form second row dumped Morgan Parra on his backside right under the nose of referee Dave Pearson as the Clermont scrumhalf looked to take a quick tap and Ulster's task suddenly got a whole lot harder.
But Brian McLaughlin's men took the setback in their stride and were only a single penalty behind at 6-3 when Tuohy returned 10 minutes later. A 17th-minute effort from Pienaar was sandwiched in between two short-range strikes from Parra as Clermont failed to make the most of their numerical advantage.
A loose pass from Clermont skipper Aureilien Rougerie then almost gifted Craig Gilroy a 25-metre run in but the tiniest of ankle taps from Lionel Faure saved the French centre's blushes.
Pienaar was off-target with a 28th-minute shot at goal before levelling the scores four minutes later from wide on the right. Ulster will feel three points could easily have been seven, however, as they blew a substantial overlap as Ian Humphreys' lopping pass forced Andrew Trimble to break his stride and allowed the covering defence to pull him down just short.
Pienaar missed a second penalty attempt 40 seconds before the break but handed Ulster a 9-6 lead five minutes after the restart. The two kickers then exchanged a penalty apiece - with Parra striking on 48 minutes and Pienaar on 56 - before Paulo delivered the game's central blow.
Parra's conversion pushed Clermont four points clear but Ulster refused to give up. Pienaar landed another penalty and, although Parra hit back, Ulster could have won it at the death had Rory Best's throw in at a close-range line-out at the death hit its mark.
Pens: Parra 4
Pens: Pienaar 5
Clermont: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 David Skrela, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Julien Bonnaire, 7 Julien Bardy, 6 Gerhard Vosloo, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Julien Pierre, 3 Clément Ric, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Lionel Faure.
Replacements: 16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Daniel Coetzee, 19 Jamie Cudmore, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Kevin Senio, 22 Brock James, 23 Regan King.
Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (captain), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Andi Kyriacou, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Willie Faloon, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Nevin Spence, 23 Adam D'Arcy.
Referee: Dave Pearson (England)
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