Lyttle full of pride as gutsy Reds give Larnaca a fright
Cliftonville 2-3 AEK Larnaca
It was a night of mixed emotions for Cliftonville manager Gerard Lyttle at Solitude.
On one hand, his side had produced the best display any of the Irish League sides had mustered in European competition this season.
On the other, there was a lingering feeling that something truly special had slipped through Cliftonville's grasp.
Goals from Jason McGuinness and Jay Donnelly had given the north Belfast club an incredible 2-0 lead in the 49th minute.
A whirlwind 18 minutes from AEK Larnaca, however, turned the tables and ensured the Cypriots left Belfast with a 3-2 first-leg win in the second qualifying round of the Europa League.
Lyttle shook his head and said: "I'm gutted for the boys, they put so much into it.
"We deserved our 2-0 lead and if it wasn't for that 20-minute spell, it could have been something else.
"You have to give Larnaca credit. They were excellent in the second-half.
"Their movement and pace were fantastic. We expected that. They work on these things every day.
"Obviously the boys are disappointed but we can take pride from the fact we frightened them.
"For 60 minutes we were in dreamland."
The dream started in the 17th minute when Marty Donnelly flighted in a pinpoint corner-kick from the right-hand side and new captain McGuinness headed home.
The centre-back was just too strong for the Larnaca defence, rising high inside the box to power the ball past goalkeeper Rubin Mino.
There was no let-up from the Reds at the start of the second period.
They charged forward and created a second goal in the 49th minute.
David McDaid clipped a ball over the top of the Larnaca defence, which allowed Jay Donnelly to use his electric pace to run past the Cypriot backline.
The young forward kept his cool in front of the Cage End and slotted the ball beneath Mino from 12 yards.
It was no more than the Reds deserved. But could they hang on to their lead?
The answer was an emphatic no. Larnaca found another gear, showing the difference in class that exists between Europe's professional clubs and the Irish League's part-time hopefuls.
Larnaca pulled a goal back nine minutes later when Tete clipped the ball into the path of Ivan Trickovski.
The forward kept calm to drill the ball past Reds keeper Jason Mooney.
Goalscorer Trickovski then turned creator in the 64th minute. He showed his class with a divine through ball that cut the Reds wide open.
Elias Charalambous read the pass and converted from inside the penalty box, wiping out Cliftonville's lead.
Larnaca completed their comeback in the 77th minute when Tete produced a clever back heel that rolled into the path of forward Joan Thomas, who couldn't miss from less than 10 yards out.
The Reds will travel to Cyprus for next Thursday's second-leg in the knowledge that things could have been very different.
But their performance won them some new admirers.
Larnaca's Spanish-born manager Antonio Hidalgo was keen to praise the Belfast club when the Cypriot media asked how on earth his side had lost two goals to a semi-pro side.
"Cliftonville were excellent," he said.
"They pressed us very high from the kick-off and gave us a tough game.
"I'm very pleased that we were able to fight back and win the game against a strong team."
Cliftonville may have left the field feeling like they had missed a golden opportunity to claim an incredible European victory, but they can take pride from the fact they gave an experienced Larnaca side one hell of a scare.