Super Shayne Lavery puts Linfield in the box seat for Europa League group stage with stunning win over Qarabag
Europa League play-off first leg: Linfield 3-2 Qarabag
Linfield are in the driving seat for a place in the group stage of the Europa League after pulling a simply incredible 3-2 win over Qarabag at Windsor Park.
After the visitors went ahead through former Hearts winger Faycal Rherras, headers from Mark Stafford and Shayne Lavery on the end two quality Andy Mitchell set-pieces reversed the scores in the closing stages of the first half.
The best was yet to come as international forward Shayne Lavery delivered one of the great Irish League goals, considering the stage, to double Linfield's lead.
Qarabag did bag an injury-time penalty through Magaye Queye after Niall Quinn had fouled Jaime Romero, a goal that could have huge significance in one week's time after the second leg in Azerbaijan.
But nonetheless, this was a night that belonged to the Blues.
— Gareth Hanna (@GarethHanna11) August 22, 2019
Considering the setting, the timing and the technique, this is one of the greatest goals I’ve ever seen. Just wow.
Take a bow Shayne Lavery and Linfield ������������ pic.twitter.com/tBefnrxiH4
It's one of the all-time great results for an Irish League team in Europe.
To put it into context, this is a Qarabag side who played in the Champions League group stages only two seasons ago, drawing home and away against Atletico Madrid. Last season, in the Europa League groups, they were unlucky to go down only 1-0 to Arsenal at the Emirates.
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Just last month, the comfortably sent League of Ireland champions Dundalk packing in the Champions League with a 4-1 aggregate win.
Now, incredibly, part-time Linfield lead them in the race to this season's competition proper.
Rherras put the visitors ahead in what, at the time, you'd have fancied to be the start of a relatively straight-forward path to the groups for the experienced Azerbaijan champions.
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Captain Maksim Medvedev played a delightful lob over the defence and Rherras got there before goalkeeper Rohan Ferguson to poke into the top corner.
Qarabag were beginning to showboat, such was the comfort they felt at 1-0 ahead as they battered Linfield's backline, pinning their hosts right back into their final third. It could and should have been two when Rherras burst down the right and crossed for what looked a tap-in for former Birmingham midfielder Michel, who could only strike the post.
But, if Qarabag were underestimating Linfield, it was to their ultimate peril.
Two goals in the final five minutes of the half, thanks to two superb Andrew Mitchell assists, turned the tie on its head and sent the Blues in 2-1 ahead at the break. Linfield were level on 40, Mitchell's free-kick finding Mark Stafford to head home his second European goal of the summer.
It was the same telling delivery, albeit this time from a corner, that allowed Shane Lavery to beat goalkeeper Vagner to the ball right on the stroke of half-time to send the home support absolutely bonkers.
Qarabag, suitably rocked, took 15 minutes to ease their way into their second half stride but, when they did, they were caught on the break by a simply smashing strike.
When a Qarabag corner was hoofed clear, the tireless Lavery was straight onto it. So was Huseynov, the left-back, but he was absolutely bullied by little Lavery, knocked to the ground as the striker drove on.
He now had Gara Garayev in his sights. You could hear the full-back gulp from the top of the stand and he was right to be scared. Lavery flicked the ball between the own legs, inside the defender and curled the finish round the goalkeeper. It was absolutely textbook. Magic. Dreamland.
The Promised Land of the group stages was in sight, and still is, but the path will be that little bit more tough after Magaye Gueye chipped home an injury-time penalty after Niall Quinn had hacked down Jaime Romero as the cut in from the right wing.
Nonetheless, it was Linfield's night. And what a night.
They're in the driving seat. The Europa League group stage is just a draw away.
Here's the game as it happened:
Belfast Telegraph Digital