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Linfield are in the mood for even more heroics, insists proud Healy

 

Glory night: Mark Stafford celebrates his opener
Glory night: Mark Stafford celebrates his opener

By Steven Beacom

Linfield manager David Healy will demand even more from his players in their extraordinary European adventure when they travel to Azerbaijan for the biggest match of their lives.

Healy has felt a great sense of pride at the efforts of his team in continental competition this season and was blown away by their 3-2 victory in the first leg of the Europa League play-off round tie at Windsor Park but insists the Blues must up the ante for Thursday's return in Baku to have a chance of making the group stages.

Success against Qarabag will see the club bank £4m in Uefa prize money. For the Linfield players, it may provide them with a chance to take on Manchester United, Arsenal, Wolves, Rangers, Celtic, Sevilla, Roma or Lazio.

Qarabag, winners of their domestic title six years in a row, have become used to being in that company. Two seasons ago, they were drawing home and away with Atletico Madrid in the Champions League.

Linfield's manager David Healy
Linfield's manager David Healy

Dominant and 1-0 ahead early on at Windsor, the visitors looked sure to coast through to the group stages. Two expertly taken set-pieces before the break from Andy Mitchell changed that thought process with Mark Stafford and Shayne Lavery heading home the midfielder's first-class deliveries.

On 75 minutes, Lavery's stunning individual goal sent the Linfield fans wild with delight and the Blues into a 3-1 lead. An injury-time penalty from Qarabag halved the deficit, though didn't erase the joy amongst home supporters at what they just witnessed from their heroes. It was a display of grit, determination and skill, perfectly setting up an intriguing return at the Tofig Bahramov Republican stadium.

Northern Ireland record scorer Healy, who has netted iconic winning goals against England and Spain, said it was up there with those occasions for him as a Windsor memory.

He added: "When you are 1-0 down early on against a team like Qarabag, you fear the worst. I had to check a few times in the first half to see if they had squeezed an extra body on because we were being overloaded in every area of the pitch, so massive credit to the players for coming back and winning the game.

"What they had to withstand and the way they bounced back with appetite and energy was fantastic. I love Linfield scoring set-piece goals and Shayne's second goal and his performance epitomised everything about us."

Healy switched from his normal formation of 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 with Mitchell coming in for the injured Stephen Fallon. It proved a masterstroke call from the boss.

"As a manager you have to make decisions and Andy Mitchell hasn't really played this season," explained Healy.

"We discussed that we would possibly get an opportunity from a set-play. Kirk Millar is normally the key player delivering but the way we shaped up we wanted Andy in there as part of a three in midfield and it proved the right decision not just in his performance but also his quality from set-pieces.

"Andy never lets me down and he came up with two fantastic deliveries and created two wonderful goals for us."

In control: Andrew Mitchell pulls the strings against Qarabag
In control: Andrew Mitchell pulls the strings against Qarabag

Mitchell was one of a team of heroes from Rohan Ferguson between the sticks to livewire Lavery in attack, who ran himself and the opposition defenders into the ground.

Healy was also delighted with the atmosphere generated by 4,500 vociferous Linfield fans roaring the boys in blue on to a famous victory. He expects the Qarabag supporters will create a hostile atmosphere of their own.

"I imagine they will have 30,000 to 35,000 cheering them on in a hostile atmosphere and they will be baying for our blood," stated Healy.

"They probably feel that the minimum where they should be is the Europa League group stages having been disappointed to go out of the Champions League.

"Despite us winning at Windsor, they are still favourites to progress because of their quality but we have given ourselves a shot with the result and performance in the first leg.

"It will be the biggest challenge of my young managerial career to go there and test myself and it will be a huge test for the players too.

"We will need to be even better than we were at Windsor but the way the players go about their business and the way my staff work, we go there with belief of causing a huge upset. We've worked very hard and played well to get to where we are and I'm very proud of the position we have put ourselves in ahead of the game in Azerbaijan."

The Blues don't play a league game over the weekend, resting up and recovering for the trip to Azerbaijan with Healy and his squad flying out to Baku on Tuesday on a chartered flight.

With what is at stake, they will board the plane knowing they could return as Linfield and Irish League legends.

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