Rohan Ferguson (GK), Chris Casement, Jimmy Callacher, Mark Stafford, Matthew Clarke, Stephen Fallon (Andy Waterworth 77'), Jamie Mulgrew ©, Bastien Hery, Joel Cooper (Jordan Stewart 81’), Niall Quinn (Kirk Millar 77'), Shayne Lavery
David Healy’s lionhearts put up another heroic effort as they only lost out on a place in the Europa League group stage on away goals after a 2-1 defeat to FK Qarabag in Baku, Azerbaijan this evening.
The Blues were hoping to keep things tight early on but they were dealt the start they’d have dreaded as Qarabag took an early lead. The ball was fed centrally into the feet of ex Everton striker Magaye Gueye and he flicked it on expertly into Spaniard Jaime Romero who fired a clinical strike past Rohan Ferguson at his near post.
Linfield responded well and almost drew level on 24 minutes after a well-worked counter attack. Shayne Lavery sent Niall Quinn away down the left and he pulled the ball back to the edge of the box for Bastien Hery whose left-footed shot was well held by goalkeeper Vagner.
The hosts went looking a second as Emreli slipped in goal scorer Jaime Romero but this time he was denied as Rohan Ferguson made himself big to make a block save from close range.
The Blues threatened just before the break and were unfortunate. Niall Quinn sent a wicked free-kick delivery into the middle from out right and Bastien Hery was agonisingly close to making the vital contact but he couldn’t quite connect. Mark Stafford was also following up behind but seemed to expect Hery to make a contact as the ball drifted by the far post.
Going into the break, Linfield manager David Healy would have been happy with his team’s performance, particularly with the way they responded to the early opening goal, and he will have known that all his team needed at that point was one goal.
Half Time: FK Qarabag 1 – 0 Linfield
The hosts cranked up the pressure again early in the second half but Linfield stood tall. Zubir’s long shot was well saved by Ferguson before Ailton headed wide from a corner and just after the hour-mark, defender Sadygov struck a free-kick against the post from the edge of the box after Stafford brought Gueye down.
French winger Zubir went close again when he took the ball down at the back post before turning smartly away from Casement and Cooper before being denied by a great stop by Rohan Ferguson.
Gueye headed one wide on 75 minutes and moments later Jimmy Callacher produced two heroic blocks to keep it at 1-0. At that stage David Healy gambled and went for a more attacking approach, knowing that one goal could send them through, changing from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2, bringing on Millar and Waterworth. These positive changes made Linfield look dangerous and the game could have swung either way.
Healy’s men forced Qarabag back and when Chris Casement had an opportunity to hurl a long throw into the box, play was stopped just before he was able to launch it as the referee booked Michel for pushing Stafford down in the box, but no penalty was awarded.
The Blues had to throw everything at it but a smart second settlled Qarabag nerves on 87 minutes. A quick free-kick was Zubir spring beyond the offside trap with a well-timed run to race through before rounding Ferguson and slotting the ball into the net.
Despite needing two goals in seven minutes, Linfield still fought to the wire and pulled one back in the third minute of added time. Substitute Jordan Stewart showed good feet to get to the byline before firing in a cross which was palmed out by the ‘keeper to in-form Shayne Lavery who rifled home a volley to give Linfield a glimmer of hope.
It wasn’t quite enough in the end as David Healy’s men went out on away goals but what a heroic effort on the night and throughout the incredible European journey which included trips to Norway, Faroe Islands, Montenegro and Azerbaijan. To go toe-to-toe with a team ranked almost 300 places ahead of them is a credit to David Healy and the team who have made associated with the club, and indeed Northern Irish football, incredibly proud.
Full Time: Qarabag 2 – 1 Linfield (4-4 agg.)