I’d braced myself for a 3-2 defeat after extra time. It was going to be another Skoda Xanthi.
For the first time since 2005, Linfield were playing a European tie in August. It didn’t start well.
Standing in departures at Edinburgh Airport getting ready to board, a goalflash alert beeped to say that Sutjeska had just gone 1-0 after ten minutes. Arriving in Belfast and getting on the bus into the City Centre, I finally had wifi again, and expected to be 3-0 or 4-0 down, but instead we were 2-1 up. It’s not often you have a smile on your face when you return from a holiday.
When you have a winning formula, you might as well stick to it, which is what David Healy did, naming the same starting eleven as the first leg, which meant a place on the subs bench for Jimmy Callacher.
Despite a lead and two away goals, the tie was far from over. It was evident in the opening two minutes with Linfield being unable to get the ball.
Eventually, they did get the ball, and made good use of it. They got rewarded when Mark Stafford headed home from a corner.
Due to the larger crowd, more of The Kop was open than normal, meaning I was sat in the middle of the goal and had a perfect view of it. Stafford made a run which meant that all he had to do was get a clean header on the ball, which he did. The perfect start.
The perfect start didn’t last for long though, as Sutjeska equalised with a header from Bojan Bozovic. The perfect was wiped out.
The early goal rush continued, and it was Linfield who were back in front when Shayne Lavery got in behind Sutjeska’s defence. Sutjeska’s keeper went out to clear the danger, and only succeeded in giving the ball to Lavery.
Usually in a situation, the striker is swarmed by defenders, or makes a mess of the shot, or a defender gets back and blocks it. These situations rarely result in a goal, but this one did, putting Linfield 2-1 up.
What it also meant, was that it was good news if you wanted to go to bed at a sensible time when you got home, as we wouldn’t be going to extra-time.
A neat passing move saw Kirk Millar shoot narrowly wide, as he tried to make his birthday celebrations last for a full week.
If Linfield could get a third goal, there would be no way back for Sutjeska.
As the half ended, Linfield received a boost when Aleksandar Sofranac got two quick yellow cards. Linfield smelt that this tie could be won before half-time. Sutjeska were playing to get to half-time at 1-2, and then try to regroup and clear their heads. They were able to do just that.
As the hour approached, Sutjeska were on top and looking for an equaliser. Rohan Ferguson was forced to make a top class save from close range to deny them. Linfield just couldn’t get the ball away. Eventually, Sutkeska were rewarded when Bojan Bozovic headed home to make it 2-2.
Windsor Park was now nervous. Linfield had the advantage, but Sutjeska were only one goal away from winning on away goals.
David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Joel Cooper for Kirk Millar.
Cooper waltzed into Sutjeska’s penalty area, and his perfect low cross was met by Matthew Clarke to fire into the empty net to make it 3-2.
Windsor Park erupted, they knew that the goal meant. With the game on a knife edge, this goal put Linfield just out of reach for Sutjeska.
Only a pub team would concede two late goals at home in Europe to lose 4-3. Oh, hello there Celtic.
The crowd wasn’t relaxed despite the advantage, but not as tense as they would have been ifi t was 2-2.
Shayne Lavery got a standing ovation as he was replaced by Andrew Waterworth, who helped Linfield see out the game and win 3-2.
There wasn’t much time for Linfield to celebrate, as they would face Qarabag in the Play-Off Round eight days later, with a League match against Coleraine sandwiched inbetween.
I’ll repeat that, Linfield are two games away from a place in the group stages of the UEFA Cup.
I’m not even sure if Windsor Park has VAR facilities. Will the Referee have to run up to The Edinburgh Club to watch TV replays on BT?
Elsewhere in the UEFA Cup, Dundalk went out, meaning my hopes for a Dundalk v United group match at Lansdowne Road has bitten the dust.
This match meant that Linfield’s trip in the League to Ballymena was postponed.
The other League games that were played saw not surprising wins for Crusaders and Larne to give them six points out of six, and drop points for Glenavon, Coleraine and Glentoran meaning those three trail Linfield having played a game more. It’s important to keep getting League points alongside European adventures.
As well as the Ballymena match being postponed, the match against Qarabag means the League Cup tie against Ballinamallard will have to be postponed.
There are also doubts as to wether the Warrenpoint game, scheduled for two days after the Qarabag first leg, will be moved.
There’s still nine months of the season left, so there’s no need to panic regarding fixture scheduling, but we should start to be proactive.
As disappointing as it was when it was announced, you can start to see why the club withdrew from the Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers Cup. If we were in it, we’d be away to Fortmarine United.
That’s somewhere near Aberdeen in case you’re wondering.
It’s not Aberdeen we’re heading to, it’s Gdansk in May 2020.
Via Azerbaijan first. Hopefully, Qarabag have the same experience as Azerbaijan’s national team had when they last played at Windsor Park.