Linfield captain Jamie Mulgrew says the club and supporters need to forget about the prospect of facing Hearts and focus on the golden prize of the group stages of European football.
If the Blues can progress past Swiss champions FC Zürich, they will face the Scottish big guns in the Europa League play-offs. However, Mulgrew says the bigger target is the groups and the chance to become the first team from Northern Ireland to achieve that lucrative European miracle that will bank the club around £3million.
FC Zürich are at Windsor Park for the first leg tonight (7.45pm), with the loser of this match-up facing the unseeded winner of the Europa Conference League tie between RFS (Latvia) and Hibernians (Malta).
A Battle of Britain with Hearts, including their Northern Ireland duo Liam Boyce and Michael Smith, will capture the imagination but Mulgrew says their dreams are much bigger than that glamour tie.
“People are talking about Hearts being a great incentive, but if we beat Zürich we are in the group stages and that is the aim,” he insisted.
“It doesn’t matter who we get after Zürich — if we beat them, it will be just as hard. It’s the Europa Conference League which is more our standard and although we face a mammoth task we have shown what we are capable of. I think everyone is motivated to make the group stages, it would be great for me at the stage I’m at in my career but it would be special for anyone at any period.
“Not many people would envisage an Irish League team getting to the group stages. It is the top prize and goal for us.”
The Premiership champions are going into this clash on the back of a humbling 8-1 aggregate loss to Bodø/Glimt but Mulgrew, who made his 50th European appearance for the club in Norway, knows his side have come off the ropes before and displayed their power.
“We’ve been on the back of hidings before in European competition and against Dundalk — it happens, it’s not nice but what matters is we bounce back in a positive manner,” he insisted.
“We can’t do anything about that now and there is no point in thinking ‘what if’ and end up leaving ourselves short here.
“We have to move on and we knew it was going to be a difficult game. Bodø are a top-quality side and Zürich will be no different as they have won their league by a large distance.
“The Bodø performance at Windsor was the benchmark and we can be formidable at home. We have to continue to make our home a fortress in all competitions.
“It can give us a nice platform in Europe, giving us an advantage going into the second leg.”
Defeat for David Healy’s side will see them tackle Latvian or Maltese opposition in the Europa Conference play-offs.
“We are certainly not thinking games are going to be straightforward, we are going down the champions path so we know we are facing top sides,” added Mulgrew.
Meanwhile, Linfield confirmed their three opening Saturday league games have been moved to Sunday kick-offs – August 14 at home to Portadown, August 21 away to Newry City and August 28 away to Carrick Rangers.