Five things we learned from Linfield's win over La Fiorita at Windsor Park
From Jordan Stewart to Damiano Tommasi and the Linfield supporters, the impressive points from the first leg
Linfield squeaked a win in thrilling fashion as they edge towards that Celtic tie. It wasn't as fearsome a display as they delivered in the Irish Cup final but a win's a win, and here are the take-away points.
1. Jordan Stewart has still got it
Where else to start than with Linfield's newest hero Jordan Stewart? He couldn't possibly have picked a better moment to cap his debut with a goal. As the clocked ticked towards 90 minutes, the scores locked at 0-0, it seemed a breakthrough wasn't going to come. Even when Jordan Stewart seized on the ball in the penalty area, there was surely too much to do to find the net. Not for this man.
We all saw time and time again during his Glentoran days just what he's capable of. And this was up there with what we saw before his move to Swindon. The trickery to jink past two defenders and then the goalkeeper even had David Healy confused, as the boss later revealed: "Initially, I thought Jordan was going to hit the ball with his right foot, then he moved it to the left. I was then thinking, 'Please hit it, Jordan.' But he had to put the goalkeeper on his backside first, before he scored an absolute cracker."
Promising Irish League stars have gone to England and come back lesser players before. But this would suggest that's not going to be the case this time. Welcome back Jordan - Swindon's loss is most definitely the Irish League's gain.
2. The Blues are better than La Fiorita
It really is as simple as that, even if the visitors were just a matter of seconds away from claiming a valuable away draw. The statistics will show that it would have been largely undeserved. Linfield enjoyed huge swathes of possession, territorial dominance and spurned several chances before 'Sukka's moment of magic. La Fiorita struggled to escape their own half for the entirity of the second period - and much of the first. In saying that, concerns must remain that the San Marinese champions still created two of the best chances of the match - one in the first period as the ball bobbled across the goal and the second a Damiano Tommasi header that gave Roy Carroll a sweat as it flew inches wide. Had one of those two found the net, we could be looking a very different tie.
3. David Healy is loyal to his players
Had Jordan Stewart started that match, few could have questioned the manager's decision to bring in the man who was one of the Irish League's leading lights until his move into full-time football. But he didn't. Rather, he stuck with the players who delivered three trophies last season. In fact, he made just one change to the starting XI that had obliterated Coleraine in last month's Irish Cup final - and even that was forced as Jimmy Callacher missed out through injury, to be replaced by another of last season's players Chris Casement. Those new signings may have their work cut out to force their way in - well, Jordan might have done enough.
4. Damiano Tommasi still has it
At 43, Mickey Keenan was just coming into the prime. But for the rest of us mere mortals, it's a grand old age to be playing senior football at - to put it in context, it's six years David Healy's senior. Considering Tommasi originally retired from professional football eight years ago, the former Roma and Italy midfielder's display was impressive. He showed time and time again his class with neat passes, picking his way through Linfield's midfield. He could even have been the match-winner, had his second half header fell the other side of the post. Class is permanent - any Irish League manager fancy a veteran midfielder?
5. Linfield's fans can make Windsor roar
There's a lot of talk that the new Windsor Park stadium is too big for an Irish League team - a soulless pit with atmosphere lost into a plethora of empty seats. There's certainly reason to understand concerns that the 18,000 capacity ground will struggle to become a real cauldron in day-to-day local fixtures, but last night I was genuinely surprised at the roar I heard as Linfield's players came out onto the pitch. Perched high on the top tier of the South Stand (with the wind cutting through us), we weren't aware of just how many Blues fans had poured into the lower tier. They turned out in their thousands, and made the noise to match. Kudos to the club for rewarding each of those fans with a guaranteed ticket to the potential home leg against Celtic.
Oh but still don't mention the C-word
David Healy got through his press conference without uttering 'Celtic' - even referring to them as the 'Scottish Champions' at one stage. But now Linfield are just one clean sheet away from facing Brendan Rodgers' men. Nearly there.
Belfast Telegraph Digital