Champions League 1st Qual Rd, 2nd Leg
Linfield defender Conor Pepper insists his team’s Champions League tie with Zalgiris Vilnius is far from over — even though the Lithuanian side arrive at Windsor Park for Tuesday’s return leg with a two-goal lead.
David Healy’s boys lost in the heat at the LFF Stadium last week with strikes from Hugh Videmont, Tomislav Kis and an unfortunate own goal from Blues goalkeeper Chris Johns ensuring it will be a difficult night when the teams reconvene at the international arena.
But the fact that Christy Manzinga pulled one back convinces Pepper that Linfield are still very much in with a shout of progressing to the second qualifying round.
“Zalgiris are a decent side, they keep the ball well just like a lot of those European sides,” he says.
“Like most European ties, we went out there not knowing a lot about them. We can watch footage, but that doesn’t tell you everything about them.
“We had to feel them out over the first 20 minutes or so. Their three goals came from set-pieces, which was disappointing, but they never really carved us open from open play.
“There were a few refereeing decisions we were not happy with either. The free-kick from which they scored their first goal was soft and how the referee decided to award a penalty kick against Stevie Fallon for the second, I’ll never know.
“It was a bit of a joke to be honest. Stevie was two or three yards away from the guy who actually mis-hit the shot and the ball came off his arm. The referee couldn’t wait to give the spot-kick.
“We finished the game really well. I think if it had gone on for another 10 minutes or so, we probably could have scored again.”
Linfield have enjoyed many memorable European nights and Pepper wants to make it another special occasion — especially with home supporters due back at Windsor Park.
“I definitely don’t think the tie is over,” he adds. “It’s going to be a really big game.
“Every one of the boys believes we can do something at Windsor Park and get a result. It’s now all about preparation and hoping for the best come Tuesday.
“It will be great to have the crowd behind us. I think there is some hope of getting a couple of thousand fans in, which would be great.
“If we could get an early goal with the crowd behind us, it would really set us up. You’ve seen it at the Euros with the fans back — they really make a big difference.
“Linfield have had some good nights in Europe over the last few years, we should now be looking to make it another memorable occasion.”
Although the Blues are playing catch-up in terms of turning around the two-goal deficit, Pepper admits caution will be the key, especially over the first 20 minutes.
“We now know what we are up against,” he explains. “We’ve seen Zalgiris at close quarters. I know we can do better as a team — we can certainly improve on our performance.
“Christy got a goal that could have been huge for us, but the away goal rule now doesn’t apply. It doesn’t really change anything. We know what we must do to win the game.
“I don’t think we can over-think the situation. It’s all about putting in a bit more into our own performance to see where it takes us.
“The temperatures were very hot over there, so we’ll not have that to deal with either. It felt even hotter on their Astro pitch — it seemed to take in the heat.
“Hopefully, we can turn up the heat on them on Tuesday, especially with the crowd behind us.
“We want to make sure they know they are in a game straight from the kick-off. We must set the tempo and set the tone for what we want to do.”