Linfield's bid for historic European win dashed by late away goal
LINFIELD 1 (AGG 2-2) SKODA XANTHI 2
Linfield's history making summer in Europe has ended in heartbreak.
After winning three successive Europa League matches and keeping three clean sheets along the way, the two away goals that the Blues conceded to Xanthi at Windsor Park brought their amazing run to an end in the most painful fashion.
Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad if they hadn't been on the brink of winning the tie after a stunning strike by captain Michael Gault put them ahead in extra-time; losing out to a much better team would have been easier to take.
Xanthi, however, were less than impressive and while they might argue that they played with just 10 men for 75 of the 120 minutes the Greeks showed very little ambition to win the game until Gault's goal forced them to attack.
Leite Pereira Marcelo's two clinical finishes – the decisive one coming just five minutes after Gault – were enough to giv Xanthi the victory on away goals though and while Linfield will be thinking about what might have been, manager David Jeffrey can still be proud of what his players have achieved in a memorable month, during which they won away to Fuglafjodur of the Faroe Islands and Xanthi.
The Blues had been pegged back in the early stages as Xanthi went in search of a quick-fire goal that would level the tie, but they didn't overly trouble goalkeeper Johnny Tuffey and once the Blues settled they began to create chances themselves.
A corner after nine minutes wasn't cleared properly, James Knowles sent the ball back into the box and Philip Lowry was just off target with a header.
When the Greeks did trouble Tuffey their finishing was clinical. They took the lead on the night on 26 minutes after captain Spiros Vallas sent Marcelo racing clear down the left wing. The winger cut inside and cracked a sweet shot across Tuffey and into the far corner of the net.
Xanthi were reduced to 10 men seconds before the break – and despite protestations they couldn't really complain about the wild challenge that Konstantinos Fliskas put in on Michael Carvill midway inside the Linfield half. It was both high and reckless and it was no surprise when the Russian referee whipped out his red card.
With a numerical advantage – and Jamie Mulgrew on in midfield in place of Knowles – Linfield pressed forward early in the second half and bossed things territorially, but without carving out a chance that might restore their lead in the tie.
Xanthi appeared happy to sit back and soak up the pressure and any shots they had were coming from 40 yards and were well off target.
It was becoming a game of cat and mouse with neither team willing to take the kind of risk that might allow the other to break quickly and score – indeed Xanthi looked like they would happily settle for the tie being decided on penalties, particularly after bringing two defenders into the action 11 minutes into the second half in favour of two more attack minded players.
The Greeks did go close from a free-kick 25 yards out on 77 minutes. In fact their bench thought that they had scored what would have been a killer goal at that stage, but Arisstide Serge Die's shot ruffled the outside of the netting rather than the inside, much to the relief of the home crowd.
And those Linfield fans then thought that their team had scored six minutes later when Mark McAllister nicked the ball of Vallas on the edge of the box. The Blues substitute was under pressure as he shot from 15 yards and the effort lacked the power to take it over the line, with Vallas mopping up comfortably just in front of the line.
The final whistle came shortly after to send the tie into extra-time.
The 2,500 fans inside Windsor Park were off their feet nine minutes into extra-time when Gault's wonderful finish in the 99th minutes made them believe that their team was on the edge of history.
Xanthi substitute Steve Gohouri had only just came on when he sliced a clearance straight to the Linfield captain and he sent a beautiful left-foot volley from 15 yards flying into the net to spark wild celebrations.
The tie was far from over though and the second away goal that would give Xanthi victory came just five minutes later.
Tuffey had made a fine save from Marcelo's free-kick just seconds earlier, but Linfield never really cleared properly after the resultant corner. The ball broke out to the left wing to the same player and he cut inside and drilled a shot past Tuffey at the near post to break Linfield's hearts.
Linfield: Tuffey, Gault, Lowry (McCaul 91), Thompson, Carvill, B.J. Burns (McAllister 70), A. Burns, Ward, Clarke, Knowles (Mulgrew 46), Ervin. Subs not used: Ross Glendinning, Tipton, Reece Glendinning, Quinn.
Xanthi: Kiriakidis, Marcelo, Vasilakakis (Gohouri 98), Marlin (Bertos 56), Manatalos (Baxevanidis 56), Komesidis, Vallas, Paito, Die, Goutas, Fliskas. Subs: Perez, Platellas, Ranos, Gohouri, Triadis.
Referee: Aleksei Eskov (Russia).