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Slack Blues fail to hit heights in tame surrender to minnows

Linfield 0 Floriana 1

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Disbelief: Shayne Lavery shows his frustration at a missed chance

Disbelief: Shayne Lavery shows his frustration at a missed chance

Disbelief: Shayne Lavery shows his frustration at a missed chance

In the week that Linfield celebrated one of club's most famous European performances, David Healy's boys last night turned in a disjointed display which brought their Europa League venture to an end.

It was almost 50 years to the day since the Blues stunned mighty Manchester City in a Cup Winners' Cup tie, the English giants going through on the away goal rule.

Maltese side Floriana may not have had star-studded names in the form of Francis Lee, Mick Summerbee and Colin Bell on show, but they were still too hot to handle in this second qualifying round tie.

While there were 45,000 fans crammed into Windsor Park back in 1970, there wasn't a sinner inside the plush arena last night - no crowd, no atmosphere and, apart from the orders being barked from the respective dugouts, no noise at all,

It was eerie stuff, and another remainder that Covid-19 is still hovering.

Striker Matias Nicholas Garcia hit a first-half goal that rocked the Blues right to their foundations. They could do little right after that.

Their night of misery was compounded when defender Ross Larkin was dismissed by referee David Munro, taking charge of his first European game, 16 minutes from time after picking up a second yellow card.

Floriana will now have home advantage against Estonia's Flora Tallinn next week after shredding the script when they forged ahead as early as the ninth minute.

Tiago Adan Fenseca laid the ball into the bath of his strike colleague, who let fly from 20 yards and his low shot totally deceived the wrong-footed Chris Johns in the Linfield goal.

The Blues attempted an immediate response, with Niall Quinn whipping in a corner from the right that Shayne Lavery failed to get a telling touch on.

Then Jimmy Callacher could only hoof a shot into the side netting after a Quinn free-kick picked out the big defender at the back post.

But the visitors were growing in confidence and Brandon Paiber tried his luck with another speculative effort after another clever piece of play by Fenseca.

Minutes later, Ryan Camenzuli took off down the left before firing a low drive across the face of the goal that Fonseca was just inches away from touching home.

Predictable and lacking in ideas, the Blues struggled against a side last term won the Maltese title for the first time in 27 years.

They had to wait until the last minute of the first-half to test goalkeeper Ini Etim Atkpan, who managed to beat away a stinging drive from Navid Nasseri following a trademark surging dash through the middle by skipper Jamie Mulgrew.

The hosts missed a chance to level seconds later when defender Ethan Boyle headed wide following another pinpoint corner kick from Quinn.

Having consumed a half-time tongue lashing from Healy, the Blues roared from the traps with Lavery forcing Atkpan into a save within seconds of the restart.

Two minutes later, Lavery again caused problems which resulted in Stephen Fallon's shot being parried by Atkpan, but Bastien Hery shamefully blasted wide of an open goal.

Healy finally lost patience with his misfiring troops and opted to introduce strike pair Andy Waterworth and Christy Manzinga, but Linfield's hopes off salvaging the game suffered a hammer blow 16 minutes from time when Larkin was dismissed after picking up a second yellow card for hauling down Ulises Jose Arias.

The Blues had a late shout for a penalty when Lavery went down inside the box following a challenge from Jurgen Pisani, but referee Munro wasn't impressed.

Then, with the seconds ticking down, Atkpan pulled off a wonder save to deny Callacher, who looked a certain scorer from six yards.

LINFIELD: Johns, Larkin, Callacher, Lavery, Nasseri (Manzinga, 62 mins), Clarke (Waterworth, 62 mins), Fallon, Hery (Kearns, 78 mins), Mulgrew, Boyle, Quinn. Unused subs: Moore, Stafford, McClean, Pepper,

FLORIANA: Atkpan, Ruiz, Venancio, Leone, Keqi (Cheveresan, 84 mins), Paiber (Arias 61, mins (Beye, 84 mins)), Pisani, Garcia, Diaz, Camenzuli, Fonseca. Unused subs: Cassar, Cini, Busuttil, Agius.

Referee: David Munro (Scotland).

Belfast Telegraph