Sigh of relief as hero Stewart gives the Blues an edge
Linfield 1 La Fiorita 0
Cometh the hour, cometh the man! Super-sub Jordan Stewart last night produced a magical moment to give Linfield a slender advantage in their Champions League first qualifying round clash with La Fiorita.
Stewart was summoned from the bench on 60 minutes at Windsor Park, pulling on the famous blue shirt for the first time since his move from Swindon Town.
With a lucrative second round meeting with Celtic the prize, David Healy's boys appeared to have run out of ideas against the San Marino minnows in this first-leg tie.
The 90 minutes was almost up when little Stewart, whose late grandfather Phil Scott played for the Blues, scoring 220 goals in 400 games, announced himself with a goal fit to grace any occasion.
The international venue erupted. Those fans know the Blues now have a genuine chance of getting a result in the second leg in San Marino next week - and that Celtic dream could at last become a reality.
But the Irish League champions made heavy work of this win. They even missed a second-half penalty when Aaron Burns had his effort saved.
Healy resisted the temptation of handing any of his new summer signings - Andy Mitchell, Robert Garrett and Stewart - their full debut, preferring to stick with the team that landed a league and cup double.
With such a high-profile second round game at stake, it was no surprise that it was the home team that probed and prodded right from the off.
They should have been in front on 10 minutes when Paul Smyth's creativity on the right took him clear of Andrea Matini and when he whipped in the most inviting of crosses, Niall Quinn could only power over.
And they came even closer four minutes later. The influential Smyth curled in a corner from the left and this time Mark Stafford's thundering header left the post wobbling.
The Blues were eager for an early breakthrough. Defender Chris Casement was next to try his luck with a 25-yard free-kick that failed to trouble Gianluca Vivan after Andy Waterworth was chopped down.
Then, just seconds later, Waterworth took off before finding Stephen Lowry, whose 20-yard blockbuster arrowed inches over the top.
La Fiorita had their first sniff at goal on 33 minutes, but when Danilo Ezequiel Rinaldi spotted Roy Carroll slightly off his line, his attempted lob went horribly wrong.
The Blues had a real let-off minutes later when Rinaldi crossed to the back post for the unmarked Adolfo Jose Hirsch, who could only manage to bundle his effort across the goal.
After the early second-half sparring, the game erupted on 63 minutes when Croatian referee Juje Strukan awarded the Blues a penalty kick after Vivan's outrageously high challenge on Lowry.
Smyth's cross was helped on by Burns, but the keeper managed to stick his boot into Lowry's head in the process of collecting the ball.
Vivan made ample amends for his howler, however, by producing a wonderful save to keep out Burns' spot-kick.
And the big keeper was at it again on 76 minutes when Waterworth threaded a clever pass into the path of Smyth. His low effort looked destined for the bottom corner until Vivan stuck out a boot to divert clear.
La Fiorita could have nicked it five minutes from time when Marco Brighi's cross was met by the head of Daminano Tommassi. The former Roma and Italian World Cup star's header inched just past the post.
But the home fans erupted with only seconds of normal time remaining with that Stewart wonder goal. Picked out by Cameron Stewart, the little wizard took off on a dazzling solo run and, after walking past Vivan, he stroked the ball into the empty net.
Linfield: Carroll, Stafford, Haughey, Waterworth, Lowry, Burns (C Stewart 75), M Clarke, Casement, Mulgrew, Quinn (J Stewart 60), Smyth. Subs: Millar, Garrett, Mitchell, R Clarke, Deane.
La Fiorita: Vivan, Matini, Brighi, Di Maio, Olivi, Miglietta (Lunadei 89), Olcese (Guidi 90), Rinaldi, Tommasi, Gasperoni, Hirsch (Zafferani 80). Subs: Pancotti, Cangini, Colonna, Michelotti.
Referee: Duje, Strukan (Croatia).
Match rating: 8/10.
Man of the match: Jordan Stewart