Belfast Telegraph

This Linfield team can be heroes with win over Qarabag: Healy


Euro trip: David Healy and Linfield celebrate their victory over Sutjeska
Euro trip: David Healy and Linfield celebrate their victory over Sutjeska

By Graham Luney

Linfield manager David Healy has challenged his players to continue their historic European journey with one more heroic effort tonight.

The stage is set for what could be the greatest achievement in the club's history - if they can climb a mountain in Azerbaijan.

Linfield, wearing their away red and white kit, will run out at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium aiming to become the first Irish League side to make the group stages of the Europa League.

Whatever happens at the home of Azerbaijan champions Qarabag, Healy and his men will return home with their heads held high - but they could still be walking on air.

In humid conditions, the visitors will be looking to keep their cool and they will need to be at the peak of their powers to emerge triumphant following the first leg, which they edged 3-2 at Windsor Park.

Linfield have already netted just under £1.4m from a European campaign which has seen them win back-to-back fixtures for the first time since 1966, and their prize money will hit the £4m mark if they can qualify for the group stages.

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But the remarkable run, which has included victories over HB Torshavn of the Faroe Islands and Montenegro champions Sutjeska, has left the players hungry for more glory.

Healy knows the odds are stacked against his men but he's backing them to write the most glorious chapter in the club's illustrious history.

"I prefer Windsor to here, of course, but there'll be an excitable crowd and possibly slightly hostile," said Northern Ireland's record goalscorer. "They will be looking for goals and we are under no illusions about the task ahead. But I've spoken to the players and we believe.

"There is no point in us being here to make the numbers up, that's not what we are doing.

"It's a challenge but, having trained at the ground, I've made it clear to the players we could be on the end of a huge result for the football club.

"I've told them to dream big because football can create heroes. We will all need to be heroes and hopefully a few of the players write their names in the club's history books."

This is the furthest Linfield have travelled in Europe, in every sense, and just one more hurdle must be cleared before they can reach the groups.

"It would be brilliant to finish this off," added Healy. "The players believe that it's possible but we need to take that into the game and we will be as positive as we can.

"Qarabag have huge European pedigree but I know we have the players who can deliver a positive performance.

"It's been an incredible journey and we don't want it to end. I want the players to experience more occasions like this. I'd have snapped your hand off for a 1-0 lead last week. I firmly believe the players are physically and mentally ready."

Linfield captain Jamie Mulgrew will equal the club's record of 36 European appearances held by legend Noel Bailie tonight.

"They came out all guns blazing at Windsor and it could be even more intense for us out here with their home crowd behind them," he said.

"They were a bit shell-shocked by our level of performance. I don't think they expected that but I'm sure they have a few more gears to reach.

"I don't think there is too much pressure on us, we have surprised a few people and it is simply a huge match to relish. You never know when these opportunities come again. I don't think it's a crime to dream of what might happen."

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill guided Shamrock Rovers to the Europa League group stages in 2011 and hopes Linfield can make history.

O'Neill's Rovers defeated Serbian champions Partizan Belgrade 2-1 in the second leg of their tie following extra-time.

"I think it'll be tough and it's a bit similar to what we faced," said O'Neill as he announced his Northern Ireland squad for the games against Luxembourg and Germany.

"We drew the first leg and went to Belgrade, which is a very hostile place. Maybe not as hot as Baku, but it was blistering hot that night, so it will be challenging.

"They have to stay in the game. I had a good chat with David and said, 'Stay in the game as long as possible'.

"When you do that, the belief in your team grows.

"The challenge for Linfield will be how they react if they go behind and how they then try and get back in front.

"We had that same situation in Belgrade. We were 1-0 down and my right-back scored a volley from about 30 yards that he'd never, ever score again.

"You need things like that to happen and he'll probably need his goalkeeper and defence to play exceptionally well.

"They've done an amazing job to get to this stage of the competition and to be challenging and keep the tie alive.

"Clubs like Aberdeen are out of the competition and other clubs in much stronger leagues have exited the Europa League by this point.

"David has done a fantastic job and Linfield deserve enormous credit. They've done it right, they've prepared properly and the benefits of that are showing.

"Everyone here should wish them well, it would be a massive achievement if they can get through and I'll be watching with interest."

• COLERAINE have signed goalkeeper Martin Gallagher from Institute on a two-year deal, striker Nedas Maciulaitis from Annagh United and midfielder Aaron Jarvis, also from 'Stute.

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