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Qarabag keen to repay fans with win over Linfield after Champions League heartbreak

 

David Healy
David Healy

By Steven Beacom

Qarabag will arrive in Belfast this week still smarting from a defeat that dropped them into the Europa League for a clash with Linfield.

The best team in Azerbaijan will feel they should be taking on mighty Ajax tonight for a place in the Champions League group stages rather than playing at Windsor Park on Thursday.

Qarabag defeated Apoel 2-1 in the first leg of their Champions League clash in Cyprus and were favourites to progress. In Azerbaijan, though, Qarabag underperformed and went down 2-0 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate.

Head coach Gurban Gurbanov said: "I was excited about the game and we wanted to get into the play-offs but it didn't happen.

"Sometimes you play too weakly and you don't get the result you want. I'm sorry for leaving our fans sad."

If Gurbanov was disappointed, Healy admits he was taken aback when hearing who his next opponents in Europe would be.

"Qarabag losing at home to Apoel surprised me after they won in Cyprus," said the Linfield boss. "In case we got through we had taken a look at both Apoel and Qarabag and have done our homework since. Now we're looking forward to Thursday's first leg at Windsor."

Healy has history with Azerbaijan. He scored his 36th and final Northern Ireland goal against Azerbaijan, netting a free-kick in injury time in Belfast to earn the home side a 1-1 draw.

He recalls: "That was basically my last kick of a ball in a Northern Ireland shirt. I know I played a cap after that but I don't think I touched the ball in the Israel game. Hopefully we can have scorers against this team from Azerbaijan."

In recent seasons the Blues of Chelsea and Arsenal have enjoyed success in Europe over Qarabag.

If Linfield can beat them over two legs it will be the best result in the club's history for so many reasons, including the Uefa prize money of £4m that would come their way for reaching the group stages.

Team selection from Healy will be fascinating. He has been spot on so far in the Europa League wins over HB Torshavn from the Faroe Islands and FK Sutjeska (Montenegro).

Will big hitters like Jimmy Callacher, Andy Waterworth and Jordan Stewart start on the bench as they did in the Windsor victory over Sutjeska?

Healy changed half the team for Saturday's league game at home to Coleraine and the Blues played like they had never met each other in a 4-2 defeat.

If they perform at that level on Thursday the scoreline will be a lot worse. Expect Linfield to be much better than at the weekend. It's Europa League time again and so far that has seen Healy's men raise their game.

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