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Lavery's double has the Blues in dreamland

Linfield 3 Qarabag 2

Head man: Shayne Lavery swoops to score Linfield’s second goal last night
Head man: Shayne Lavery swoops to score Linfield’s second goal last night
Crucial blow: Mark Stafford heads home the equaliser
Special feeling: Shayne Lavery celebrates his first goal

By Steven Beacom

When the final whistle blew at Windsor Park the Linfield fans stood to applaud their heroes. Not for the first time in Europe this season, David Healy's team had produced an outstanding effort.

And once again Shayne Lavery was sensational, scoring twice to give the Blues a golden chance of making more history and qualifying for the group stages of the Europa League.

There will be £4 million on the line when Linfield kick-off against Qarabag next Thursday. Throw in the chance to meet sides like Manchester United, Arsenal, Celtic and Rangers in the next phase and surely it has to be the biggest match in the Belfast club's history.

Healy's players have done themselves proud in their remarkable run but this 3-2 first leg victory in the play-off round was the best result so far especially having trailed to an early goal from Moroccan international Faycal Rherras.

They could easily have gone under to the men from Azerbaijan, who are a quality outfit used to playing at this stage and beyond.

But this is Linfield in the Europa League, 2019/2020. They don't go under. They go over and above playing with fight, fire, resilience and skill.

And they come up with results. Midfielder Andy Mitchell delivered pinpoint crosses from set-pieces for the rock solid Mark Stafford and the tireless Lavery to head home before the break. The outpouring of joy amongst the 4,500 raucous fans inside the stadium was something to behold.

Then came the power, pace and poise of Lavery in the 75th minute to net a breathtaking strike and give Healy's side a crucial two goal advantage. Magaye Gueye cut that in half with an injury time penalty to leave the tie on a knife edge and while that was disappointing, it did not stop the home fans hailing a special performance from the team in blue.

Normally, Irish League sides are out of Europe before the summer school holidays are over. When next week's second leg against Qarabag takes pace some children will be back in their classrooms.

To think this history making European run for the Blues started back on July 10 with a home game against Rosenborg in the Champions League. They lost that tie and ended up in the Europa League overcoming HB Torshavn from the Faroe Islands and FK Sutjeska from Montenegro, becoming the first Linfield team to win European ties in succession since 1966. Now they are on course for a hat-trick.

Healy made three changes to the starting line-up that overcame Sutjeska with Jimmy Callacher, Joel Cooper and Mitchell coming in for Ryan McGivern, Kirk Millar and Stephen Fallon.

On 15 minutes they went behind to a goal that should have been avoided. Linfield goalkeeper Rohan Ferguson punched a corner away and Bastien Hery looked to have cleared the danger only for the ball to come back into the box from Maksim Medvedev. Healy's rearguard was caught out and Rherras was quickest to react lofting over Ferguson to score.

The visitors ought to have doubled their lead shortly after only for Michel to hit the post with the goal gaping, then Ferguson and Callacher denied Jamie Romero. Ferguson then saved again keeping out Rherras.

Linfield were hanging in. They needed inspiration. It came in the 40th thanks to Mitchell and Stafford. The former Rangers ace floated in a fantastic free-kick and Stafford powered in a brilliant header creating an explosion of noise inside the stadium.

Stafford became a dad for the second time on Saturday when little Lyla was born and it was his 32nd birthday on Tuesday. The defender was having the week of his life.

The volume was turned up by the Kop and Qarabag were rattled. In first half injury time, amazingly, the Blues went in front. Mitchell was on the money again, this time from a corner and the lively Lavery headed into the net before the visiting goalkeeper could reach the cross.

Linfield fans were loving it. On 75 they were in dreamland when Lavery brilliantly battled and blitzed his way past two defenders before providing a magical finish. It was glorious. What a signing the Northern Ireland striker is proving to be for Healy whose defence then stood tall as wave after wave of attack was mounted by the visitors.

Mahir Emreli hit the post for Qarabag prior to the injury time penalty, calmly dinked in by substitute Gueye after Matthew Clarke felled Jaime Romero. That was a blow for the Blues but they will go to Baku with all to play for after another memorable night in Europe at Windsor.

• Former Linfield midfielder Aaron Burns has left Coleraine by mutual consent.

LINFIELD: Ferguson, Stafford, Callacher, Hery, Cooper (Millar 90), Lavery (Waterworth 79), Clarke, Mulgrew, Mitchell, Quinn, Casement. Subs not used: Moore, Larkin, Stewart, Kearns, McGivern.

QARABAG: Vagner, Garayev, Medvedev, Michel, Romero, Quintana Gueye 67), Emreli, Sadygov, Zoubir, Rherras, Huseynov. Subs not used: Magomedaliyev, Ailton, Slavchev, Abdullayev, Ibrahimili, Hajiyev.

Referee: Sandro Scharer (Switzerland)

Match rating: 8 out of 10

Man of the match: Shayne Lavery (Linfield)

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