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Linfield have no answer for Zurich’s class as drop into Europa Conference League play-offs now looks likely

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Linfield ace Eetu Vertainen cannot believe what is going on around him at Windsor Park during the 2-0 defeat by FC Zurich

Linfield ace Eetu Vertainen cannot believe what is going on around him at Windsor Park during the 2-0 defeat by FC Zurich

Linfield ace Eetu Vertainen cannot believe what is going on around him at Windsor Park during the 2-0 defeat by FC Zurich

Linfield’s Europa League dream last night hit the buffers against Swiss giants FC Zurich at Windsor Park.

The Blues approached the third qualifying round first leg tie with their confidence still in a fragile state following their sobering Champions League defeat by Bodo/Glimt last week — they were beaten 8-0 in the second leg — so it was always going to be a massive test of character.

Aiyegun Tosin and Wilfred Gnonto hit the goals which give the Swiss champions the advantage when David Healy’s men travel to the Letzigrund next week — but the Blues, of course, still have aspirations of becoming the first Irish League side to reach the group stages of any European competition.

Franco Foda’s team are now favourites to face Scottish side Hearts in a play-off for the Europa League group stages, with the Blues set to drop into the Europa Conference League play-off against either RFS (Latvia) or Hibernians (Malta), who drew 1-1 last night.

The result meant the Blues conceded their impressive unbeaten home record. They completed the entire season with an unblemished slate at the international venue and, although they defeated both TNS and Bodo in European combat, Zurich proved to be a bridge too far.

Healy’s troops tried desperately to shake off the fatigue following that awful experience in Norway, where they lost the influential Kirk Millar after only 20 minutes when he was sent off for handling the ball on the goal line to prevent a goal. He was given a one-game ban.

It meant Healy had to reshape his starting XI, handing Eetu Vertainen a shirt and replacing Jordan Stewart with midfield workhorse Kyle McClean.

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Defender Jimmy Callacher was still missing because of injury, but new signing from Oxford United Joel Cooper took his place on the substitutes’ bench — the first time he’s been included since being injured against TNS.

Urged on by their noisy, flag-waving 400-plus band of fans, who sang and chanted throughout the game, Zurich required merely eight minutes to forge ahead.

In their first tangible attack, they cut the Blues to shreds with a wonderful back-heel from Antonio Marchesano, who sent Tosin romping into the box and his finish was sublime, tucking the ball neatly past the stranded Chris Johns.

It was the first time the Blues had been behind in a home game for over a year.

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Robbie McDaid shows his frustration after a missed chance

Robbie McDaid shows his frustration after a missed chance

Robbie McDaid shows his frustration after a missed chance

But they showed great resilience and really should have been level on 18 minutes. McClean’s free-kick from the left ricocheted off a few bodies and fell invitingly for Robbie McDaid, but instead of opening his goal account for his new club, he could only shoot against the legs of goalkeeper Yanick Brecher.

And they came close again from McClean’s resulting corner-kick that was headed across goal by Sam Roscoe before the ball was ushered away by defender Cheick Conde.

Big Finnish striker Vertainen then burst down the left, cut inside defender Lindrit Kamberi and drilled in a cross that was expertly gathered by Brecher.

But the visitors were always dangerous going forward and, in another lightning raid, Gnonto found Jonathan Okita, who curled a 22-yard beauty inches over the crossbar.

And they gave the Blues another fright nine minutes from the interval. This time Gnonto twisted and teased his way past Roscoe before letting fly, only to see his shot beaten away by the gloves of Johns.

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Chris Shields can’t stop FC Zurich’s Aiyegun Tosin opening the scoring at Windsor Park

Chris Shields can’t stop FC Zurich’s Aiyegun Tosin opening the scoring at Windsor Park

Chris Shields can’t stop FC Zurich’s Aiyegun Tosin opening the scoring at Windsor Park

In another quick-fire attack, the industrious Marchesano sent Italian international Gnonto breezing down the left only to see his effort gobbled up by the alert Johns.

The Blues went in search of an equaliser and were almost rewarded when McDaid’s cross from the right was whipped off the head of Vertainen by Kamberi.

Seconds later, defender Ben Hall joined his forwards and managed to get a head to Matty Clarke’s corner and, when the ball fell to Vertainen, his scuffed shot was saved by Brecher.

The introduction of Cooper also gave the Blues a renewed impetus and, when he went down under a clumsy challenge from Mirlind Kryeziu, the home fans were on their feet claiming a penalty. Italian referee Marco di Bello wasn’t so convinced.

But it was Zurich who struck again on 64 minutes. That man Gnonto roared through the middle, leaving Hall in his wake before picking his spot in the bottom corner — game, set and match.

LINFIELD: Johns, Byrne, Shields, McClean (Stewart 68), McDaid (Cooper 53), Hall, A Clarke (Devine 87), Finlayson, Fallon, Mulgrew (Palmer 68), Vertaine(McKee 68).

Unused subs: Walsh, Williamson, Newberry, Pepper, Quinn, A Clarke, Archer.

FC ZURICH: Brecher, Kamberi, Aliti, Seinaes (Hornschuch 61), Marchesano (Avdijaj 72), Okita (Mets 61), Tosin (Rohner 72), Conde, Boranijasevic, Gnonto (Krasniqi 85), Kyeziu.

Unused subs: Kostadinovic, De Nitti, Omeragic, Hodza, Sieler, Sauter, Gogia.

REFEREE: Marco di Bello (Italy).

Man of the match: Wilfried Gnonto

Match rating: 8/10


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