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Linfield face huge ask to do what Dundalk couldn't and oust Qarabag

Big stage: Qarabag’s Mahir Madatov battles with Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka in their Europa League tie in 2018
Big stage: Qarabag’s Mahir Madatov battles with Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka in their Europa League tie in 2018

By Steven Beacom

Qarabag are hoping to make it an Irish double in Europe this season when they face Linfield, having already seen off Dundalk.

Prior to being knocked out of the Champions League by Apoel last week, the Azerbaijan outfit took on Dundalk in the same competition and came away with a 4-1 aggregate success.

At Oriel Park, the League of Ireland champions gave a strong account of themselves in the first leg to draw 1-1 but the trip to Baku proved different with Qarabag winning 3-0 with something to spare.

Post-match, Dundalk head coach Vinny Perth said: "There's no doubt that Qarabag are up a couple of levels from us."

Therein lies the problem for David Healy's side for tonight's first leg of the Europa League play-off round at Windsor Park. If Qarabag are at their best, it will be some ask for the Blues to earn the type of result they'll need to keep next week's return in Azerbaijan alive.

On the upside, Healy and his players have performed heroically in the competition so far so they can approach the game with belief that they may spring a surprise.

While they were favourites to overcome HB Torshavn from the Faroe Islands in the Europa League, defeating Sutjeska (Montengero) home and away took some doing.

Team selections and tactics were key in last round's triumph.

Healy and his staff will have done their homework on tonight's opponents and will be well aware that they are extremely dangerous on the break. Dundalk found that aspect of Qarabag's play difficult to contain and it will be a big test for the Linfield defence this evening.

While Linfield have won their domestic title twice in the last three years, Qarabag have been champions for six seasons on the bounce and have become used to big matches in Europe against clubs such as Chelsea, Arsenal and Roma.

They want more of the same in the Europa League group stages but the heat will be on them back home.

Defeat against Linfield would be viewed as a shocker in Azerbaijan.

Qarabag will comfortably be the best side the Blues have played in the Europa League this season.

Whether they are as good as Rosenborg, who knocked Linfield out of the Champions League, is open to debate.

Qarabag head coach Gurban Gurbanov has been in charge for over a decade and is proud of his team's record in Europe in that time.

He believes his side should have enough to overcome the Irish League club over two legs.

They warmed up for Windsor when they won their first league match of the season - beating Inter Baku 1-0 last Friday.

• Coleraine have announced plans to install a 4G pitch at the Showgrounds ahead of the 2020-21 season.

The Bannsiders would be the fifth Irish League team to have an artificial surface at their home ground should the planned £400,000 project go ahead - joining Ards, Cliftonville, Crusaders and Larne.

Belfast Telegraph


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