It might not yet be August, but i’m already excited and optimistic about the new season, despite the first disappointment of the season.
Having seen off Fuglafjordur, Skoda Xanthi represented a step up to a higher level, a level to which Linfield stepped up to in the first leg, winning 1-0 away.
No offence to Fuglafjordur, but the tie was over after the first leg. Despite the away win in Greece, this wasn’t.
Xanthi started the game strong, as you expected they would. So strong, Linfield couldn’t get out of their half for the first couple of minutes. When they did, winning a throw in Xanthi’s final third, it was cheered like a goal.
The crowd, biggest in a while for a European game (few few seats in the Sout, or Kop Upper Tier) knew that the team needed them.
Linfield eventually got a grip in the game and started to hold their own, having a few attempts on goal. Neither side had many chances, more situation, though Xanthi had a clear shot on goal well saved by Jonathan Tuffey.
About midway through the first-half, I began to think myself that Linfield might actually be able to hold out. Within minutes, Xanthi went 1-0 up, levelling the tie on aggregate.
It could have been so easy to feel sorry for themselves, but Linfield just dusted themselves down and got on with it.
Towards the end of the first-half, the game came to life when Xanthi had a player sent-off. I was sat behind the goal and didn’t get a clear view of it, but judging by the reaction of Linfield players, it must have been a shocker. I got the chance to watch it again on UTV, and it was.
Against ten men, Linfield started the second-half strongly but couldn’t get the goal.
The game became tense, it looked as though there would only be one more goal, if any, in it. Both sides had situations rather than chances as it headed towards extra-time.
At the interval between full-time and extra-time, a loud roar went around Windsor Park as the crowd showed appreciation for the effort for the previous 180 minutes in the tie, and to try and drive them though the remaining 30 minutes.
The start of extra-time went along the same lines of the second-half in normal time …….. and the moment we were waiting for.
A cross came in and was headed out as far as Michael Gault, who hit a beautiful volley into the back of the net, and Windsor Park erupted. I let myself believe that it was going to happen.
The important thing was to hold out to half-time in extra-time, but Linfield couldn’t. Worst of all, it was a poor goal, a corner not cleared finding it’s way to the taker to blast in. To add insult to injury, it was in the last minute of the first-half of extra-time.
I’ve no doubt if Linfield had held out and gone through.
2-1 up, Xanthi strangled the game and killed it.
Beaten, but not disgraced. The way the team played, the way the new players have played, and most importantly, the fight displayed, have given me so much optimism for the new season. Time to build on it.