Belfast Telegraph

Linfield can take the fight to Celtic, says O'Neill

 

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has backed Linfield to set up a dream Champions League date with Celtic and Brendan Rodgers.

The Blues must defeat San Marino outfit La Fiorita in the opening qualifying round to ensure a mouthwatering clash with Scotland's Invincibles, with the first leg of the prospective meeting due to take place at Windsor Park on July 14 with a 5pm start.

After a meeting in Belfast yesterday involving Celtic and Linfield officials plus Northern Ireland and Scottish police, it was decided the fixture would take place on Friday 14 after July 11, 12 and 13 were ruled out. Uefa were satisfied with the outcome.

Both Linfield and Celtic were scheduled to make statements about the potential fixture this morning with suggestions last night that the Glasgow club may not take up their allocation of tickets for the game at Windsor.

Away from dates, times and tickets, O'Neill is relishing a showdown between the Blues and Bhoys.

"I hope it happens and want to see Linfield go through and I believe they can do it," said O'Neill, who has strong relationships with respective managers David Healy and Rodgers.

"If it takes place it's good that the home leg for Linfield is being played first because they will have a better opportunity to enter the return with a fighting chance.

"For David Healy it will be a special game but knowing David he won't even be thinking about the Celtic match. His focus will be purely on getting past the team from San Marino."

O’Neill is well versed in how to succeed in Europe. Before he shone as Northern Ireland boss he guided League of Ireland team Shamrock Rovers to the group stages of the Europa League.

“When I was manager of Shamrock Rovers in Europe we had a game against an Israeli team and the carrot for us was to play Juventus if we won. We did and it was brilliant,” he recalled.

“It would be the same for Linfield to play a massive club like Celtic in the Champions League. I think the Linfield players would enjoy the media attention that would come with it and I think it will be a great game if it comes to fruition.”

O’Neill does not expect Carnlough native Rodgers to take his eye off the ball against Linfield.

“Brendan will prepare for the Linfield game the same way he would if Celtic were playing Juventus,” said O’Neill, who was in Belfast yesterday to conduct the draw for the UEFA Women’s Under-19 Championship which will be staged in Northern Ireland in August.

“Celtic will obviously be strong favourites if that game does happen, but I firmly believe there will be no change in Brendan’s preparation. I’m also sure he will have no reservations about coming back to Northern Ireland as Celtic manager.

“He has done a fantastic job there and is now one of the most experienced managers around.”

• Linfield and Glentoran have kicked off a ‘Big Two Annual Challenge Cup’, an annual pre-season match to alternate between the Oval and Windsor Park.

This year’s match will be played at the Oval on Saturday, July 29 at 3pm.

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