Chris Johns (GK), Ethan Boyle, Mark Stafford, Ross Larkin, Matthew Clarke, Stephen Fallon,, Jamie Mulgrew (C), Kirk Millar, Bastien Hery (Conor Pepper 78'), Niall Quinn (Navid Nasseri 83'), Shayne Lavery (Christy Manzinga 75')
Defeated, disappointed, but certainly not disheartened. Yes, Linfield were eliminated from the UEFA Champions League this evening, but everyone associated with the Club will have watched on with immense proud at how their team represented Linfield Football Club on the big stage once again.
The Blues were massive underdogs against a team with immense quality and pedigree. You only have to look back at Legia Warsaw’s results against the elites like Borussia Dortumund and Real Madrid in recent years to see what David Healy’s men were up against.
From the off, it was a determined and stoic collective effort. The fans asked for one hundred percent from their team and they got that. Taking up a great defensive and disciplined shape from the start, goalkeeper Chris Johns wasn’t anywhere near as busy as many would have anticipated.
The Blues did have an early scare when the Warsaw left back fizzed in a wicked cross which went untouched across the face of goal, and soon after the ball bounced around the box before Johns was able to pounce, but other than that it was a comfortable opening half hour. Not only did Linfield defend ever so well, they also kept the ball well in spells which was important to preserve energy.
Shayne Lavery had an opportunity to shoot from distance but he scuffed his shot wide, before Warsaw striker Plekhart met a pinpoint cross from the right to force a great assertive and acrobatic clutch from Chris Johns.
Against the odds, it was very nearly Linfield making a breakthrough on 41 minutes. Former Celtic, Southampton and most recently Bournemouth goalkeeper, Artur Boruc was forced into a great save. Kirk Millar’s dangerous free-kick was perfect for Mark Stafford who steered a powerful header towards the corner, but the Polish international got down to turn it behind.
Half Time: Legia Warsaw 0 –0 Linfield
The second half brought more of the same – plenty of Warsaw possession, but not able to break Linfield down for the most part. The dangerous overlapping left back did burst into the box with an inward run but typically, he was met by the man mountain that is Mark Stafford who flew in to make a trademark, courageous block.
Everything was going to plan until the last 20 minutes which proved an eventful ending to the game. On 74 minutes, Linfield received a blow when they were reduced to ten men. Kirk Millar received a second yellow card for a second late challenge and was dismissed. In hindsight, Kirk will regret flying in to the second one while already on a booking, but instinct surely kicked in when he saw the ball there to be won.
Stephen Fallon hooked a header off the line from one of Warsaw’s many corners which had been so well defended all night. Unfortunately, it was only delaying the breakthrough which arrived two minutes later in the 81st minute. It proved to be an inspired substitution from Warsaw boss Aleksandar Vukovic as substitute Jose Kante netted what proved to be the winner, shifting the ball onto his left foot and firing a good finish into the bottom left corner.
Marciej Rosolek had the opportunity to seal it for the hosts late on from a good position but hiis lob over Johns struck the woodwork.
A man down and a goal down but Linfield never waned in spirit. The introduction of Christy Manzinga offered hope due to his brilliant cameo off the bench. The Frenchman almost produced what would have been a remarkable equaliser as he cut in from the left and beat Artur Boruc with a swerving driven shot, only for the ball to strike the post. Agonisingly close!
The Blues may be out, but they can travel home with their heads held high and look forward to another bite at the cherry in the 2nd round of the Europa League Qualifiers. It’s just a pity that there won’t be a second leg, because this was a brilliant and closely-fought affair which in normal circumstances would have been nicely poised for an atmospheric Windsor Park return leg.
Full Time: Legia Warsaw 1 – 0 Linfield