Belfast Telegraph

Barry Johnston: irish League boys are fit for job in Europe

By Graham Luney

Barry Johnston says Irish League players have never been fitter and stronger for European battles. Glenavon's bid to overcome FH Hafnarfjordur was badly hampered by travel disruption but Crusaders and Linfield have progressed in the Europa League.

The Reds are in Hungary tonight for a tough assignment against Debrecen in a Champions League qualifier at the Nagyerdei Stadion (7.30pm) but Tommy Breslin's men held their more glamorous opponents to a scoreless draw at Solitude.

Elemer Kondas's side will be playing in the 20,340-seated venue for the first time and hungry to produce a debut performance to remember. While faced with another uphill struggle against a side with Champions League group stage experience in the 2009–10 season, the Reds have taken inspiration from their Irish League rivals who have flown the flag proudly on the continent.

Johnston feels the players deserve credit for stepping up to summer challenges.

"To be fair to the Irish League players they're coming back from the summer break in fantastic shape," said Johnston.

"I've never seen the players in better condition and they understand it has to be this way because of the fitness levels of the sides we face in Europe.

"There are big physical challenges for the players but we are in the best possible condition to produce the performance levels to get results.

"Linfield beat Faroe Islands opponents and achieved an unbelievable result against AIK and Crusaders progressed as well. It's fantastic for the Irish League and it shows that with the right physical preparation, a bit of know-how and tactical awareness, we can enjoy success in Europe.

"I also think it's part of the mentality of the Irish League teams that we can rise to the big occasion and lift ourselves for massive games."

The winners of tonight's tie will face Belarusian giants FC Bate Borisov or Albanian team KS Skenderbeu in the next round.

Johnston added: "They have quality players who are comfortable on the ball and pass it well but they are not as physically big as the Celtic players.

"We have been working on a 4-5-1 system and hopefully it will work for us. Fair play to Bressie and the coaching staff – it's geared towards us creating chances and we will go to Debrecen with the same application.

"Anything is possible, even though we are not favourites."

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