On Thursday lunchtime, looking at the gloomy weather, I joked to myself if they have rain in Azerbiajan. Would this unsettle Qarabag? It wasn’t rain that Qarabag had to worry about, it was another force of nature – Shayne Lavery.
Linfield were 180 minutes away from a place in the group stages of the UEFA Cup, the first Irish League team to be in this situation (although not the first team from Northern Ireland, as Derry City were in this scenario in 2006, during the original group stage format. Before I get any angry letters from Foyleside)
They couldn’t have got a worse draw. Qarabag might not jump off the page in the grand scheme of European Football, but they know how to get to the group stages of European competition, most notably the UEFA Cup.
When you want to reach the groups stages of the UEFA Cup, the last team you want to face is a team who knows how to reach the group stages of the UEFA Cup.
Qarabag were no strangers to Northern Ireland, having squeezed through 3-2 against Portadown in 2010. That might not have caused much fear among Linfield’s support, their more recent history – draws against Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid (twice) in the last five years was a barometer of the task in hand.
It took just over a minute for Linfield to realise they had stepped up a level as some cheaply lost possession resulted in a quick attack for Qarabag, a shot going just wide of the post.
Though, if it did go in, with just over a minute on the clock played, it still would have been a better start than the previous match against Coleraine five days earlier.
However, Linfield weren’t spending the opening minutes defending, they had some attacks of their own, though not ones that caused panic for Qarabag.
Despite the even start, Qarabag took the lead when a clearance was returned back into the Linfield penalty area, and Faycal Rherras stretched out a leg, the ball looping in to silence Windsor Park.
Didn’t even like the UEFA Cup, prefer the County Antrim Shield to be honest.
Don’t have to worry about being conflicted if Linfield draw United, wondering if i’ll do two trips to London in nine months if we draw Arsenal, thinking of a Birmingham/Oxford double header if we draw Wolves. Then there’s Espanyol, oh well, no weekend in Barcelona.
Linfield responded with a series of attacks, the crowd cheering and roaring them on, there was no feeling sorry for themselves.
Qarabag were in the mood to finish this tie on the night, hitting the post after a quick attack, while Rohan Ferguson was forced into save after another attack.
Linfield hung in there, it was all they could do.
In previous matches, we had seen Bastien Hery showcase his skills. Tonight, we saw a different side of him, frequently pickpocketing the ball when Qarabag players held onto the ball for too long.
As half-time loomed, Linfield got an equaliser when Mark Stafford headed home from a free-kick. Linfield were no longer looking to stay in the tie, they were very much in the tie.
It completed a rather eventful birthday week for Stafford, with two goals and a baby with his birthday sandwiched inbetween.
Earlier this month, Kirk Millar had his birthday sandwiched inbetween his birthday. Have to say, i’m a big fan of Linfield players going on goal runs when they have their birthday.
Linfield responded to their own goal in the same way they responded to Qarabag’s, with a series of attacks roared on by their support.
As injury time approached, Bastien Hery found himself wide, surrounded by Qarabag players with nowhere to go. He worked his magic and won a corner.
A chance for Linfield to make the most of their momentum, which they did, Shayne Lavery heading home to put them 2-1 in front.
You’ve got Dundalk coach Ruaidhri Higgins to thank for this, having pointed out that Qarabag were weak at set pieces when interviewed by the BBC in the build-up to this match.
For both goals, especially the second, questions have to be asked of Qarabag’s keeper, not that Linfield fans cared as they were grateful.
Just ten minutes earlier, I would have taken Linfield only being 1-0 down at half-time, which makes the turnaround even more spectacular.
In the second-half, Shayne Lavery, Andrew Mitchell and Matthew Clarke had attempts at goal as Linfield looked to get a 3-1 advantage, while also keeping their opponents at bay
Neither side looked like getting that goal, but a 2-1 win would do for Linfield.
However, on 74 minutes, things got even better for Linfield when Shayne Lavery chased down a clearance, and outmuscled a Qarabag defender, and raced towards goal, cutting onto his left foot, the question now, was did he have the finish?
What a stupid question, of course he did, and Linfield were 3-1 up.
Every time a Qarabag defender got the ball, Lavery was snapping at their heels. Quite a lot of times, the Qarabag defenders were able to win cheap free-kicks. Lavery only needed to get it right once.
If Hery was pickpocketed the ball from Qarabag players, Lavery was just taking the ball off them without asking them.
Linfield fans would gladly have taken any advantage to Azerbaijan, now they had a two goal margin.
Within minutes, it looked like Qarabag were going to make it 3-2 when the ball fell perfectly to Mahir Emreli after a tackle, Windsor Park held it’s breath, and then celebrated as if it was a goal when the ball hit the post and landed into Rohan Ferguson’s arms.
The luck was with Qarabag, and it went straight back to Linfield.
It looked like Linfield were going to hold out for a 3-1 win, until Qarabag got a penalty in injury time for a tired tackle by Matthew Clarke. It was a clear penalty. Even the Southstanders didn’t protest, and they moan about everything.
Magaye Gueye stepped up, and Panenkaed it into the net, making it 3-2. It would have been almost too perfect if he had missed it.
The atmosphere at Windsor Park, fell muted, the knew the importance of that second away goal for Qarabag.
The muted atmosphere didn’t last long, as Linfield fans celebrated a famous win at the final whistle.
Linfield got what they wanted, the tie is alive going to Azerbaijan. It’s more than alive for Linfield. They don’t have to win over there, they don’t even have to score over there, though it would be nice.
To lose a second away goal was disappointing, but it still would have been a tough second leg if it was 3-1. We got a win. 1-0 or 4-3, it doesn’t matter, we have the advantage.
Now, time for positivity. Linfield have scored 11 goals in 5 UEFA Cup games. They’re not grinding out 1-0 wins. Well, apart from that one time.
In their two previous rounds, Linfield have scored twice away from home. That should give the players belief that they can score out there.
Even if we go 1-0 down, Qarabag will have the advantage, but the tie won’t be over.
Qarabag won’t be playing the second leg at their usual ground. Every little thing you can think of as advantage, you have to run with it.
A spin-off about this, is the co-efficient points generated from this run. Hopefully, we shall see the rewards in the coming years if we win the League and get seeded in the European Cup.
It’s something I’ve always wondered, that from the 2nd Round to the Group Stage, teams drop into the UEFA Cup, but not the 1st Round.
Finally, teams that go out of the European Cup in the 1st Round get a second chance of European football. This is the first time Linfield have been in this format (introduced in 2018) and they have made the most of it.
We can’t neglect domestic duties though. I can understand why the Warrenpoint game was postponed, instead of being played on the Sunday or Monday sandwiched inbetween both legs. We won’t get this luxury if we get to the groups.
If we do, i’ll discuss the ramifications in terms of fixture scheduling.
If Linfield were to get to the Group Stages of the UEFA Cup, it means there won’t be a spare midweek to play the League Cup tie against Ballinamallard United until October.
We’ll have to start getting points on the board as we currently sit 10th. No need to panic though.
Saturday’s results were kind to us, with Crusaders, Larne, Ballymena United and Glenavon dropping points. It’s important that nobody starts to pull away while we are inactive. We’ll be further inactive the following weekend due to the Larne game being postponed due to international call-ups.
That means Glentoran v Institute will now be a Sky Sports live game. Always good to have the little teams get a moment in the spotlight.
If we win our games in hand, we are only one point off the top.
Meanwhile, Dungannon Swifts are currently watching a Leicester City 2015-2016 Season Review DVD.
Oh, and I booked my accommodation for Bray for the Last 16 game to be scheduled in Dublin at Euro 2020. All I need is a ticket now.
The second leg will be at 5pm on Thursday. It’s live on the BBC website.
If it wasn’t for Mikhail Gorbachev, Linfield would have eight European trophies by now. Probably.
We’ve suffered European exits against teams from former Soviet countries – Dinamo Tblisi (who were later thrown out, so we got a reprieve), Lokomotiv Tblisi, Torpedo Kutaisi, and BATE Borisov, with only a victory against Ventspils in 2005 to counter it.
We’re due another one, right?