Linfield beat FK Sutjeska to reach Europa League Play-Offs for first time as Qarabag stand in way of group stage spot
Linfield 3-2 FK Sutjeska (Linfield win 5-3 on aggregate)
Linfield are through to the Europa League Play-Off round after seeing off FK Sutjeska at Windsor Park.
The Blues won 3-2 on the night, adding their 2-1 away victory in the first leg thanks to goals from Mark Stafford, Shayne Lavery and Matthew Clarke.
The win takes Linfield's total European prize money to €1.38m for the summer but, more importantly, David Healy's men are now just one win away from an historic place in the group stage. It's the first time the club have won back-to-back European fixtures since they reached the European Cup quarter-finals in 1967.
Linfield will now face the Azerbaijan champions Qarabag for the spot in the competition proper. The Blues will host the first leg at Windsor Park on Thursday, August 22 before travelling for the second leg a week later.
Qarabag played in the Champions League group stages just two years ago, when they drew with both Roma and Atletico Madrid.
It will be the Azerbaijani side's second visit to the island of Ireland this summer, having beaten Dundalk 4-1 on aggregate in the Champions League second qualifying round. The League of Ireland champions secured a 1-1 draw at Oriel Park before losing the away leg 3-0.
Qarabag also saw off Albanian champions Partizani Tirana in this season's Champions League campaign but were beaten 4-1 by APOEL.
No Irish League team has ever made it through to the Play-Off round let alone the group stages.
Two League of Ireland sides have made it into the groups in recent years; current Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill led his Shamrock Rovers team to that stage in 11/12 while Dundalk matched the feat in the 16/17 season.
There was an ideal start for Linfield on Tuesday evening, when Mark Stafford blasted a back post header home from Kirk Millar's corner.
Sutjeska's biggest threat throughout the evening came from set-pieces, the first of which ended up in the back of the net as striker Bojan Bozovic flicked a header beyond Rohan Ferguson.
The star of the first half was unquestionably Linfield forward Shayne Lavery, who tortured the Sutjeska defence and got his rewards when he pinched the ball from the goalkeeper, who raced 30 yards out of goal. From there, Lavery still had plenty to do but, under pressure, managed to hook an effort on goal and past the covering defender.
They were given another huge boost on 35 minutes, when that man Lavery caused centre-half Aleksandar Sofranac to see red, committing two fouls in as many minutes and picking up two yellow cards for his efforts.
After the break, the 10 men managed to pile on some pressure of their own and deservedly, for their second half efforts at least, levelled shortly after the hour-mark as Bozovic flicked home a header from another set-piece, this one a corner.
Rohan Ferguson had to make a couple of key saves as Sutjeska continued to press for the goal that would have put them through on away goals.
Just when the tension was really mounting up at Windsor Park, substitute Joel Cooper conjured up a magic moment of his own. He left the full-back on his backside with some trademark trickery and delivered a low cross to the back post, where Matthew Clarke couldn't miss to rubber-stamp Linfield's place in the Europa League Play-Offs.
The Blues are the last team from the island of Ireland in European competition and they're just one win away from a group stage spot.
Danske Bank Premiership results
Institute 2-3 Dungannon Swifts (McCready, Morrow / Lowe, Waide, Clucas)
Crusaders 4-0 Warrenpoint (Clarke x2, Forsythe, Heatley)
Carrick 1-2 Larne (Loughran / McMurray, Randall)
Cliftonville 3-1 Glenavon (Gormley 2, R Curran / Mitchell)
Glentoran 2-2 Coleraine (Plum, O'Neill / Bradley, Canning)
Here's tonight's Europa League game as it happened:
Belfast Telegraph Digital