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Stafford warns that Floriana will not be pushovers as Linfield prepare for Europa League qualifier



Mark Stafford

Mark Stafford

Mark Stafford

Linfield defender Mark Stafford has warned that Maltese champions Floriana will not melt in the hands of the Danske Bank Premiership title holders in Thursday night's Europa League showdown at Windsor Park.

David Healy's boys are making a habit of prolonging their interest in European combat having been pipped for a place in the group stages of the tournament last season, losing out on the away goal rule to Qarabag.

They were at it again last month when they emerged from a four-team Champions League qualifier in Nyon, defeating Tre Fiori of San Marino before being handed a first round qualifying slot at the expense of Kosovan outfit Drita, who were disqualified after two of their players were diagnosed with Covid-19.

The Belfast team, however, finally surrendered following an epic showing against crack Polish side Legia Warsaw, who edged home 1-0.

However, the consolation for Healy's team was a Europa League home tie against Floriana.

"It will be a massive occasion for the football club, all the European games are the same," says Stafford.

"A lot of the plans for the future, in terms of the club turning full-time, are based on the prize money won in Europe.

"It's an important game, we have to make sure we are in the right frame of mind going into it - we must be ready for the challenge."

With Irish League clubs now making steady progress on a regular basis on the European stage, Stafford believes that in time the group stages will be within touching distance.

"Clubs are a lot more professional in what they do these days," he adds.

"With all respect, a few years back teams were going into Europe just for the sake of it - playing a game, possibly two, and then being beaten.

"They were maybe even beaten before they played the game, but there has been a massive transformation.

"The standard in the Irish League is now so good. We are all playing good teams on a weekly basis and we are more well prepared going into Europe.

"The standard of the league week in, week out is now much higher than it was years ago, I think it is improving all the time.

"I know it's a far-away dream for any Irish League club to reach a European group stage, but if the standard keeps improving year on year I can't see why an Irish League club cannot qualify for the next phase."

Following their phenomenal performance in the Europa League last season, Stafford believes the pressure will be cranked up even more against their Maltese visitors.

"It does probably put a little bit of added pressure on us," he admits.

"There is now a little bit of expectation on us after how well we did last year, but that comes with the joys of playing for Linfield.

"There is always going to be that pressure to win games. All we can do is our best and take it for what it is. We must go and do our job and hopefully it will be enough.

"I think Floriana only lost 2-0 to the Romanian champions in the Champions League. They will be no mugs. The manager, David Healy, and Ross Oliver are very astute when it comes to the homework on these teams.

"We haven't gone into the finer details just yet, but that will happen nearer the game. I don't think it will be much of a surprise the way they will play.

"These European teams get a lot of bodies behind the ball and they play into feet a lot. The gaffer will have had a dossier on them, so I'm sure he'll use it in the build-up to the game."

Should Linfield negotiate this outing, there is another appetising Windsor Park confrontation against Estonia's Flora Tallinn or Icelandic side KR Reykjavik in the next round.

Stafford adds: "We've a massive game to play first - that's not even on our radar. Admittedly, it's a wee carrot of a home draw if we could manage to win the Floriana game.

"It's a massive incentive for the boys. We have a fantastic squad, any one of the boys could play in the starting XI.

"It's now up to us to perform on the pitch. It's a massive job to get into the squad, I certainly wouldn't like to be in David Healy's boots in trying to pick that squad, never mind the starting XI."

Sunday Life