Linfield knocked out of Europa League on away goals as Shayne Lavery strike not enough to beat Qarabag
Qarabag 2-1 Linfield (4-4 on aggregate; Qarabag go through on away goals)
Linfield's dreams of a Europa League group stage spot have been ended by Qarabag after the Irish League champions suffered a 2-1 defeat in Azerbaijan.
The Blues pushed their experienced opponents all the way, Shayne Lavery's injury-time goal meaning the final whistle was blown amid nervy scenes in Baku as Qarabag progressed only on away goals.
Jaime Romero had opened the scoring early on and key man Abdellah Zoubir's 88th minute goal looked to have made Qarabag safe, but Lavery's late strike was the least Linfield deserved for another gutsy European performance.
This is a Qarabag side who played in the Champions League group stages only two years ago and they were pushed every inch by Linfield, who delivered two marvellous displays across the tie and leave the competition with immense credit.
For the likes of free-scoring Lavery, and even astute manager David Healy, who could further their careers across the water, this has been a run that has made European football take notice.
Ultimately, some may point back to the injury-time penalty Linfield conceded at Windsor Park that brought Qarabag to within a goal at the halfway stage but, in truth, it is simply impossible to know what difference it made.
What can be said for certain is that every Linfield player did the Irish League proud in what is the greatest European run in many years; falling just a whisker short of a place alongside the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal in the group stage.
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After a 3-2 defeat at Windsor Park, Qarabag needed only one goal to edge ahead on aggregate and got it within six minutes. Former Everton striker Magaye Gueye had come in to the starting line-up as one of four changes to his side and it was the striker who flicked a delicious pass over the defence for Romero to place a finish in at the near post.
If Linfield's goalkeeper Rohan Ferguson was disappointed to be beaten, he more than made up for it with a top drawer one-on-one stop from the Spaniard scorer, who looked certain to jink round the on-loan stopper to double the scores.
After the break, centre-half Rashad Sadiqov curled a free-kick onto the post and Jimmy Callacher also made a goal-saving block from former Lens winger Zoubir.
But it wasn't all one way traffic.
Linfield had won a few set-pieces in good areas and would have been confident of making them count after scoring twice from those scenarios in the first leg.
The closest they came, though, was when Niall Quinn's first half delivery was just inches from the end of Bastien Hery's boot, the midfielder just unable to stretch for the telling touch.
Blues boss David Healy rolled the dice with 12 minutes remaining, beginning to make his changes with Andy Waterworth, Kirk Millar and Jordan Stewart all introduced.
It worked in the immediacy, with the Blues piling pressure on their more experienced hosts. Midfielder Michel was even booked for a foul on Mark Stafford as the defence awaited a long Chris Casement throw, clearly under pressure.
As much as that mounted, however, it was all relieved when Qarabag took a quick free-kick and an inch-perfect ball over the top released Zoubir's well-timed run to round the goalkeeper and clinch the victory.
Linfield, to their credit, raced back up the pitch and when Jordan Stewart's cross was palmed out into the area, Lavery found the top corner to take his tally to four European goals this summer.
There just wasn't enough time for another before the final whistle sounded.
Ultimately, Linfield fell agonisingly short of landing a place in the Europa League group stage, pushing to the wire a team 274 places above them in the European rankings.
Forging new ground for Irish League clubs, it's a European run that they can be immensely happy with, not to mention the £1.4m they bagged in prize money and the coefficient points they won.
It's been a proud summer of European football for the Irish League.
Here's the game as it happened:
Belfast Telegraph Digital