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Battling Linfield go down with pride against Legia Warsaw in Champions league clash


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Linfield and striker Shayne Lavery will take on another team in green in the Europa League second qualifying round, Floriana

Linfield and striker Shayne Lavery will take on another team in green in the Europa League second qualifying round, Floriana

Ross Larkin challenges at a corner

Ross Larkin challenges at a corner

Chris Johns pulls off a good save

Chris Johns pulls off a good save

Jose Kante

Jose Kante

Kirk Millar

Kirk Millar

Linfield and striker Shayne Lavery will take on another team in green in the Europa League second qualifying round, Floriana

Linfield produced an heroic defensive performance in Poland against Legia Warsaw last night but substitute Jose Kante broke their hearts with a sweet finish nine minutes from the end of an exhausting test.

It was the one real moment of quality from the Polish giants on a night when Linfield's resistance frustrated their much fancied opponents.

David Healy's side even threatened a late equaliser when Christy Manzinga's shot crashed off the post but there was no fairytale finish for the Premiership champions, who rose to the challenge with considerable style.

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Ross Larkin challenges at a corner

Ross Larkin challenges at a corner

Ross Larkin challenges at a corner

The Blues' Champions League campaign had been full of drama and unexpected twists until Legia Warsaw decided to flex their European muscles, but they struggled to hurt Linfield until late on and after Kirk Millar's dismissal.

After the Covid-19 scares in Switzerland and Poland, it was finally time for the football to take centre stage and the Polish giants appeared to wilt in the 27-degree heat until Kante settled their nerves.

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Chris Johns pulls off a good save

Chris Johns pulls off a good save

Chris Johns pulls off a good save

For Danske Bank Premiership champions Linfield and all Irish League representatives on the continent, there is romance and riches to be found and the Blues return home with the comfort blanket of Europa League second qualifying round action.

This first Champions League qualifying round tie in Warsaw went ahead despite one of the home side's players testing positive for coronavirus on Sunday but there was no walkover this time.

Jose Kante

Preliminary round opponents Drita had their entire team quarantined by authorities in Switzerland last week and in these uncertain and precarious times, it is a relief to see any football being played, even if it doesn't come with an atmosphere.

Linfield would have chosen to play in an empty Stadion Wojska Polskiego in the Polish capital, leaving the home side's passionate support watching from afar, but that didn't make the assignment any less daunting.

Kirk Millar

Inspired by last year's heroics, you knew Linfield were going to fight in their 72nd match in the Champions League or European Cup. But they had to marry that spirit with defensive solidity, discipline and a ruthlessness in front of goal.

All that was missing was that ruthless touch in front of goal but they emerge with great credit after restricting Legia to limited chances.

Legia, with former Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc between the sticks, have won their domestic Ekstraklasa league title no fewer than six times in the past eight years and they commanded respect.

Healy opted to freshen his side up for the formidable test and his men were magnificent.

The Blues made four changes from their 2-0 win over Tre Fiori. Mark Stafford and left-back Matthew Clarke both came into defence alongside Ethan Boyle, Ross Larkin and Niall Quinn.

Stephen Fallon was handed a midfield role with Bastien Hery, and Shayne Lavery named as the sole striker. Jimmy Callacher, Daniel Kearns, Navid Nasseri and Kyle McClean all made way.

For Legia, full-back Michal Karbownik - who has been linked with Barcelona, Tottenham and Napoli - was included.

The hosts may be used to taking on more illustrious rivals but they offered little magic in the first half as the Blues kept a good shape and frustrated them.

Legia, as expected, enjoyed plenty of possession but goalkeeper Chris Johns was rarely troubled.

In the early moments, the Polish giants were dangerous down their left flank but Millar and Boyle managed to deal with the threat.

Brazilian Luquinhas was a threat but Linfield made the tackles when they had to and showed glimpses of their attacking menace when Lavery screwed a long-range effort wide.

Legia sprung to life in the 33rd minute when their No.9 Tomas Pekhart aimed a header on target but Johns made an impressive save.

Linfield were hoping for a set-piece opportunity to strike and it arrived in the 41st minute. Millar delivered the free-kick and Stafford managed to win the header but Boruc was able to tip the ball around the post.

Hery was cautioned for a flailing arm just before the break when Legia threatened to make the breakthrough but the Blues defence - and that was their 10 outfield players - was resolute.

At half-time, the visiting players must have felt a bit more belief surge through their veins, however another hard shift lay ahead.

Legia again started on the front foot but without an end product as Johns did well to clear a cross.

Millar was harshly booked but the Blues' outstanding defensive organisation continued.

Stafford made an important intervention to make sure Filip Mladonevic's drive floated wide.

The Premiership champions, with outstanding performances from Larkin and Fallon, kept Legia at distance.

A key question was how much Linfield would tire in the second half and that concern became more relevant when Millar was sent off following a second booking in the 75th minute.

The winger slid in and caught Luquinhas, giving the referee no alternative but to send him off - that first harsh caution returning to haunt him.

Legia eventually found another gear and with nine minutes remaining, 70th-minute substitute Kante produced clever footwork and a stunning low drive that beat Johns.

Another substitute, Maciej Rosolek, came close to doubling Legia's lead but his clipped effort came back off the woodwork.

But the Blues were far from beaten and in the dying moments, lively substitute Manzinga saw his superb low drive from a difficult angle hit the post.

Healy's side beat Tre Fiori in the preliminary round semi-finals but this was a considerable step up in class against a side that reached the group stages of the Champions League as recently as three years ago.

Yet Linfield can take great heart and encouragement from this performance, particularly given their lack of preparation during a pandemic.

Huge 14/1 outsiders, many would have predicted a heavy beating against opponents who a year ago lost 1-0 on aggregate to Steven Gerrard's Rangers in a tense play-off for the group stages of last season's Europa League.

The Polish masters will march on in the Champions League and Linfield will take this defeat on the chin, while not letting their heads drop.

There was a little heartbreak felt last night but still more memories and money to be made in Europe this year.

Belfast Telegraph