Belfast Telegraph

Linfield dig deep to clinch £1m big Celtic showdown

La Fiorita 0 Linfield 0 - Linfield win 1-0 on aggregate

By Graham Luney

For the first time in Linfield's 117-year history the club can proudly shout "Bring on Celtic". You won't hear any more 'ifs' or 'buts' at Windsor Park - a first meeting of the clubs will happen and it will be two Champions League battles that will never be forgotten.

In 2013, Cliftonville got a shot at the Hoops and Linfield have now earned the right to wrestle with the Scottish Premiership champions, now managed by Carnlough man Brendan Rodgers.

To make their Celtic dream a reality, David Healy's side needed to hold their nerve and conquer La Fiorita in the first qualifying round.

A 1-0 first leg lead courtesy of Jordan Stewart's late strike at Windsor Park had given the Danske Bank Premiership champions a slender advantage and, despite facing stifling heat at the San Marino Stadium, the visitors were rarely rattled as they played out a scoreless draw.

Linfield are now set for a huge £1m cash windfall when prize money, gate receipts, television revenue, advertising and merchandising are all secured.

The Blues reached the European Cup quarter-finals 50 years ago but a Champions League clash with Celtic will hit new levels of hype and excitement.

Both Linfield and the Hoops won domestic trebles last season with Rodgers' side even going through their Premiership campaign unbeaten.

But they did suffer one of the most embarrassing defeats in their history a year ago when his first game in charge ended in a 1-0 loss to Gilbraltarian part-timers Lincoln Red Imps.

A 3-0 victory at Parkhead repaired the damage and the Hoops progressed to the group stages but they failed to win any of their six games against Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach so Rodgers will be hungry to enjoy more success on the European stage this time round.

Healy and his players are now preparing for an adventure that will take them to Paradise but the first leg will be at Windsor Park on Friday, July 14 with a 5pm kick off.

The rematch at Parkhead is scheduled for Wednesday, July 19.

Last night's clash was always going to be a tricky test for the Blues, particularly in the humid conditions. Linfield players were also well aware of what was at stake but they made a positive start with Andy Waterworth forcing Gianluca Vivan to make a smart block in the opening minute.

A Waterworth header drifted wide as the Blues enjoyed plenty of early possession and on 37 minutes Cameron Stewart directed a header just over the crossbar.

Nicola Berardi's side still had hopes of turning the tie around but the visitors contained the hosts well and had a penalty claim near the end when Mulgrew hit the ground but the midfielder was booked for diving.

Linfield dug in and fought to the finish for the lucrative prize of a showdown with Celtic.

La Fiorita: Vivan, Martini, Brighi (Ricchiuti, 59 mins), Di Maio, Olivi, Miglietta , Olcese, Rinaldi (Mottola, 81 mins), Tommasi, Gasperoni, Zafferani (Hirsch, 69 mins). Unused subs: Angelis, Lunadei, Colonna, Guidi.

Linfield: Carroll, Stafford, C Stewart (Burns, 69 mins), Haughey, Waterworth, Lowry, M Clarke, Casement, Mulgrew, Quinn, Smyth. Unused subs: Deane, J Stewart, Millar, Garrett, Mitchell, R Clarke.

Man of the Match: Jamie Mulgrew

Match rating: 5/10

Referee: Fyodor Zammit (Malta).

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