Belfast Telegraph

Brave Blues show grit as they suffer pain of defeat on away goals

Qarabag 2 Linfield 1

Tough night: Captain Jamie Mulgrew led his team like a true warrior
Tough night: Captain Jamie Mulgrew led his team like a true warrior
Andy Waterworth’s expression sums up the night

By Steven Beacom

Linfield's remarkable run in Europe is finally over. When the exit came it was on away goals. Yes, away goals. What a way to go out.

Over 180 minutes of gripping Europa League play-off round action, the Irish League part-timers and the champions of Azerbaijan scored four apiece but Qarabag made it through to the group stages because they netted more times on their travels.

That injury-time penalty a week ago at Windsor Park, when former Everton striker Magaye Gueye casually dinked the ball into the net, hurts even more now.

The spot-kick made it 3-2 to Linfield in Belfast. In the heat of Baku last night, David Healy's battlers went down 2-1, eliminating them from the competition.

Not before doing themselves proud though. It was an heroic effort from Linfield with the tireless Shayne Lavery scoring in stoppage time.

It proved too little, too late with not enough time left to mount another attack as Qarabag quaked in their boots at the thought of conceding again and dealing with what would have been a monumental upset.

Qarabag are used to qualifying for the Champions League group stages, let alone the Europa League.

Their relief walking off the pitch last night was clear to see. They had survived an almighty scare.

A first half strike from Jaime Romero and a late goal from classy Frenchman Abdellah Zoubir was enough to see the home side join the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal in today's draw for the next phase.

For Linfield now it will be back to domestic action as they play catch up in the Danske Bank Premiership. On September 7 - exactly 14 years on since Healy scored his famous goal against England - they will travel to Cliftonville.

Healy's focus will turn to retaining the title though he, his staff and players should take a little time to reflect on what they have given the club since starting out on this adventure - there's the £1.3 million in UEFA prize money of course but also the memories they have given their fans and the profile the Irish League has received on the back of their performances.

To think it all kicked off on July 10 in the Champions League against Rosenborg.

When they lost that encounter, the Europa League journey began with victories over HB Torshavn (Faroe Islands) and Sutjeska (Montenegro). Those successes were the first back-to-back Linfield wins in Europe since 1966, the season they reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup.

In this historic run, the Blues also won four European games in a row for the first time ever and Andy Waterworth broke the club goalscoring record in continental competition.

It's been quite a ride.

Last night, Healy opted to make one change to his starting line-up from the opening leg at Windsor with Andy Mitchell dropping to the bench and being replaced in midfield by Stephen Fallon. Mitchell could consider himself unlucky given that it was his delivery from two set pieces that led to Mark Stafford and Lavery scoring before the break in Belfast.

The pattern was set in the opening moments with Qarabag dominating possession and Linfield looking to hold firm.

That plan lasted until the sixth minute when a slick move from the home side opened the Blues up like a can of beans and left Romero in on goal.

The angle wasn't ideal for the striker but he was good enough to beat Rohan Ferguson at his near post.

It was a major blow for the visitors so early on but, to Ferguson's credit, he recovered from the disappointment, saving well from Michel and Romero before the break.

Linfield largely kept their defensive shape and discipline which would have pleased their manager while, in attack, Lavery and Joel Cooper looked dangerous in the opening 45.

One failing for the Blues throughout was from set pieces. Qarabag were much stronger at seeing them off than at Windsor, though they were helped by the fact that too often Linfield lacked genuine quality from dead ball situations.

The best free-kick of the night came from the hosts' Sadygov, who hit the post in the second half.

Zoubir showed flashes of brilliance on 70 minutes only for Ferguson to deny him, while Jimmy Callacher and Stafford excelled in central defence doing all they could to keep the home side at bay.

The Linfield rearguard was breached with two minutes left when Zoubir showed wonderful skill to beat the offside trap, control a long ball, shimmy past Ferguson and slot in.

That was that. Well, not quite. Showing the character they have become renowned for in the Europa League this season, Linfield scored with 93 minutes on the clock when Qarabag's goalkeeper flapped at a cross from substitute Jordan Stewart and Lavery volleyed the ball back with interest into the net via a deflection.

Linfield would not give in. Seconds later, the final whistle blew and their memorable tour around Europe was over.

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