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Plan B for Linfield as fightback comes with damage already done

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Stuck in: Linfield ace Jamie Mulgrew battles for the ball

Stuck in: Linfield ace Jamie Mulgrew battles for the ball

PA

Stuck in: Linfield ace Jamie Mulgrew battles for the ball

Linfield’s latest Champions League adventure won’t live long in the memory. Since taking charge of the Blues in 2015, David Healy has guided them into Europe’s premier club competition four times. In that period, they have been knocked out by Celtic, Rosenborg, Legia Warsaw and now Zalgiris Vilnius.

The quality of Brendan Rodgers’ Bhoys, the Norwegians and Poles was always going to prove too much for the Irish League side but while underdogs versus the Lithuanians, they had a puncher’s chance.

It’s just a pity they only started laying a glove on their first qualifying round opponents with a late flurry and a Chris Shields penalty in the second leg at Windsor Park when the contest was over.

Throw in the fact that Vilnius ended the game with only NINE men and losing 2-1 on the night was a disappointing result to go with the 3-1 reverse in last week’s away leg.

Vilnius scored twice in the first half through former Hearts ace Saulius Mikoliunas and ex-Lazio star Ogenyi Onazi.

Even with a socially distanced crowd of 980 backing them, Linfield couldn’t find the inspiration to mount a stunning comeback.

They may have been defeated but with Uefa’s modern day back door system, Linfield are still in Europe and will drop down to the Europa Conference League where they will face Borac from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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By then more supporters may be allowed into Windsor. Last night was the first time the Irish League champions had support inside their own stadium since December.

Healy made a couple of changes from the first leg with Trai Hume, back at the club following a successful loan spell at Ballymena United, coming in for Conor Pepper at right-back and Kirk Millar replacing Cameron Palmer.

There was more drama surrounding the visiting team with Zalgiris Vilnius, according to Linfield sources, unintentionally leaving star man Tomislav Kis off their team sheet and having to request to Uefa to include him on their bench.

For assist king Millar, it was his 300th appearance for Linfield. Pre-match, Healy spoke of the importance of having Millar available given the disappointing nature of set-pieces in Lithuania.

Jamie Mulgrew is always vital to the Blues and from midfield he drove his team on in the early stages, such as in the 11th minute, setting up Matthew Clarke to whip in a wicked cross which was just beyond the reach of first-leg scorer Christy Manzinga.

That offered encouragement but there was concern before that at the other end when Hugo Videmont tested Chris Johns, and after the same Vilnius player produced a dazzling raid down the left only for Jakub Sylvestr to somehow loft over.

The warning signs were there for Linfield but they weren’t heeded with Michael Newberry’s weak clearing header from a corner falling invitingly to Mikoliunas, who fired it past Johns in the 17th minute.

It was a crushing blow for the Blues. So too later in the half when they felt they ought to have a penalty after Hume was taken out having crossed inside the area. Maltese referee Matthew de Gabriele wasn’t interested and just before the break, a stunning Onazi strike from outside the box meant the tie was over with the Lithuanians 5-1 ahead on aggregate.

Linfield started the second period on the front foot with the introduction of Jordan Stewart helping. Hume headed over, Manzinga’s shot deflected wide and Shields lashed off target.

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Chris Shields scores a penalty

Chris Shields scores a penalty

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Chris Shields scores a penalty

The high-profile signing from Dundalk, though, found the net on 66 minutes from the penalty spot after Jimmy Callacher’s header from Niall Quinn’s delivery was handled on the line by Elhadji Pape Diaw, who was sent off for his intervention.

Penalties have been a hot topic since the weekend’s Euro 2020 final. Shields was as cool as ice on his home debut.

Linfield pressed for an equaliser on the night but too often the final pass was found wanting.

In the 89th minute, Karolis Uzela, who had only just come on the pitch, was sent off for a shocking lunge on the impressive Hume, leaving the visitors with nine men on at the final whistle.

Staying in the Champions League would have guaranteed Linfield around £1.2m. They’ll still make a fortune but they will need to improve to remain in the Europa Conference League for longer than one round.

LINFIELD: Johns, Hume, Newberry, Callacher, M Clarke (Stewart 46), Shields, Mulgrew (Palmer 72), Millar, Fallon, Quinn (Nasseri 72), Manzinga (A Clarke 86). Subs not used: Walsh, Williamson, Roscoe-Byrne, Larkin, Pepper, Carroll.

ZALGIRIS VILNIUS: Gertmonas, Bopescu, Diaw, Ljubisavljevic, Mikoliunas, Tatomirovic, Gamakov (Uzela 85), Onazi (Verbickas 79), Videmont, Sylvestr (Tadic 70), Kyeremeh (Karamarko 85). Subs not used: Duka, Piliukaitis, Mikulenas, Jarusevicius.

Referee: Matthew de Gabriele (Malta)

Man of the match: Hugo Videmont (Zalgiris Vilnius)

Match rating: 7 out of 10


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