Belfast Telegraph

Experience in Europe can help us lift cup: Stafford

 

Shoot-out: Mark Stafford treating tonight’s Champions Cup final second leg as a European tie
Shoot-out: Mark Stafford treating tonight’s Champions Cup final second leg as a European tie

By Alex Mills

Rugged defender Mark Stafford believes Linfield will adopt a European-style approach to tonight's Unite the Union Champions Cup final against Dundalk at Oriel Park.

David Healy's boys were held to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of this inaugural tournament - worth 50,000 euro to the winners - at Windsor Park in front of almost 3,000 fans on Friday night.

In-form striker Shayne Lavery shot the Danske Bank Premiership title holders into an early lead which was wiped out early after the break by a slick finish from Daniel Kelly.

It deprived the Blues the opportunity of taking a slender advantage across the border for tonight's winner-takes-all shootout, but Stafford reckons his team still have a few tricks up their sleeve - even though the odds are now stacked against them.

"Windsor Park is lot bigger than Oriel Park, so it makes for an entirely different type of game," said the 32-year-old former Ballinamallard United man. "It's going to be a great occasion.

"When you play in another country representing your league, it's very important that we turn up and do the job professionally.

"We are going to the Republic of Ireland to represent Northern Ireland as champions. It's a big honour, so we have to go down there and do a good job.

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"There will be a big crowd and it will be a big challenge for us, especially on the synthetic surface down there.

"I would say Dundalk will want to put on a show for the fans, especially as it will be their last game of the season . . . they are the League of Ireland champions and will be wanting to finish in style.

"They made quite a few changes for the opening fixture . . . seven in all from the side that lost the FAI Cup final the previous Sunday, so there could well be quite a few alterations to their line-up.

"No matter what team they put out, I'm sure the players will be out to prove a point."

Stafford dismisses the suggestion that Linfield missed their chance after Friday night's result.

"We probably didn't make the most of our set-piece situations, but hopefully we can put that right this time," he added. "It's now a one-game shootout and we will be treating it just like a European tie.

"We knew how good they (Dundalk) were, so we were prepared to let them have the ball for periods of time in the opening match . . . we tried not to press them too high because we could have been picked off.

"But we had to still carry a threat ourselves. When we had the ball, we had to try and make the pitch big and believe in ourselves and try to hit them on the counter attack. For large periods it worked.

"It felt like another big European night . . . the atmosphere was good with both sets of fans very vocal.

"I thought we were good in the first half, without going as far to say we were in control. I suppose we controlled their threat.

"We just kept our shape. Perhaps, we went a little bit deep in the last 10 minutes (of the first half) and became a little bit camped in. But we have to give respect to the team we were playing. They can shift the ball across the pitch a lot and we couldn't keep pressing them all the time."

Stafford went on: "The first half certainly went to plan, but the game was a lot more open after the restart. They didn't go sideways as much . . . they got the ball forward quicker and were a lot more direct.

"It means we had less time to get organised and for our midfield boys to get across to cover.

"In the first half, everything was in front of us . . . Bastien (Hery), Stevie (Fallon) and (Jamie) Mulgrew where blocking off everything, whereas in the second half they (Dundalk) switched play a lot quicker and our boys were not filling the gaps as well. But it's almost impossible to do when a team moves the ball that well."

Dundalk vs Linfield

Unite the Union Cup, Aggregate 1-1:

Oriel Park, Tonight, 7.05pm

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