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Brave Linfield crash out of Europe

By Stuart McKinley

BATE Borisov 2 Linfield 0 (BATE Borisov won 3-1 on aggregate) A different backdrop, but the same story of Champions League defeat for Northern Ireland’s flag bearers in Europe.

The battling Blues experienced familiar emotions last night as they boarded their charter flight from the Belarus capital of Minsk to return to Belfast.

David Jeffrey’s men had put everything into two games against BATE Borisov, but can once again only reflect on being beaten by a better team.

That’s how it’s been in Europe over the years for Linfield. No lack of effort or commitment and a great deal of pride for the manager and the 14 fans who made the 3,000 mile trip from Northern Ireland, but as has been the case on an annual basis, quality always shines through in the end.

After a confidence-boosting 1-1 draw at Windsor Park last Wednesday night there was a glimmer of hope that the Blues could pull off an impossible result — and why wouldn’t it?

Last night, however, two goals in the space of three minutes either side of the hour mark broke Linfield hearts.

Pavel Nekhaychik’s strike in the 58th minute only changed the complexion of the tie slightly — Linfield needed to score in order to progress anyway — but Aleksandr Pavlov’s goal on 61 made it an impossible task.

Before that they’d been under pressure in defence, but while the scoresheet remained blank the Blues were only a goal away from recording a historic win.

While over the last few seasons Irish League teams have done the country proud by pulling off victories in the Uefa Cup and it’s successor, the Europa League — most recently Glentoran seeing off Renova of Macedonia a couple of weeks ago — no team from Northern Ireland has won a tie since the European Cup’s rebranding as the Champions League.

Draws haven’t been kind to Linfield in recent times.

The glitz and glamour of the Champions League doesn’t apply in July, but it is still the place to be for any club.

BATE were the top seeds in the second qualifying round, as were Gorica of Slovenia when they faced the Blues in 2006. Elfsborg and Dinamo Zagreb were ranked second and last season’s foes Rosenborg of Norway third.

None of them have embarrassed the Irish League kingpins.

For the Blues though it’s been like having the most beautifully packaged box of chocolates being presented to them, only to discover that underneath the stunning cover is a couple of trays of Turkish Delight.

They crave the chance of playing a lower ranked team with a chance of victory.

Linfield knew that the odds were stacked against them last night, but the longer they went without conceding a goal the more there was a chance of doing something special.

BATE dominated possession early on, but weren’t able to do anything with it and there was a scare when Mark McAllister headed wide on 16 minutes.

With Nathan Hanley also going close just before the first-half ended scoreless hopes of nicking the single goal that would mean victory in the tie grew just slightly, particularly as the BATE defence were finding McAllister a handful.

Borisov threw everything at the Blues at the start of the second-half, with Alan Blayney keeping them at bay, but the pressure eventually paid off.

Artyom Kontsevoi beat Albert Watson before crossing for Nekhaychik to nod home the opener and before the Blues could regroup Pavlov crashed home the second from close range after bursting into the Linfield box.

The Blues didn’t wilt in the 25 degree heat though. Indeed they kept going right until the end and their two best chances came in the dying minutes.

Substitute Aaron Burns had a header cleared off the line as Linfield forced two late corners and from the second of those Philip Lowry forced a great save from the home goalkeeper, but there wasn’t even a goal to give the Blues some consolation.

BATE BORISOV: Hutar, Likhtarovch, Shytau, Yurevich, Patoskiy, Kantsavy, Bardini, Niakhaichyk, Paulau, Filipenka, Simich. Subs: Shcarbakou, Valadzko, Radzkov, Bardachou, Vitali, Alaikhnovish, Rudik.

LINFIELD: Blayney, Ervin, Hanley, Armstrong, Watson, Fordyce, Garrett, Casement, Lowry, Carvill, McAllister. Subs: Addis, BJ Burns, A.Burns, McCaul, Douglas, Lindsay, Kane.

Referee: Libor Kovavik (Czech Rep).

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