DAVID Jeffrey last night praised his boys even through their Champions League venture almost certainly came to an end in the Cypriot heat.
Following the dramatic penalty shootout victory over B36 Torshavn in the Faroe Islands, there was no fairytale finale to this second round clash at the Tsirion Stadion.
The Blues could manage only two shots on goal over the energy sapping 90 minutes – a testament of the home team’s domination.
They literally perished in the hot temperatures and goals from Vouho, Edwin Ouon and Chris Dickson makes next week’s return fixture at Windsor Park a mere formality.
“We knew we would be up against it,” said Jeffrey. “Not only were we playing a top team, but the heat was unbearable at times. In my 15 years as manager, I’ve never come across tougher opposition. Their movement and passing was excellent. When I looked at the scoreboard at 3-0 with over half-an-hour to go, I feared the worst.
“I can’t fault the boys – I’m proud of every one of them.
“Yes, we now have a mountain to claim, but anything can happen in football.
“We’ll certainly let Limassol know they have been in a game when the visit Windsor Park.”
Jeffrey made two changes from his starting line-up – goalkeeper Alan Blayney replaced Ross Glendinning, the hero of that penalty showdown last week, and Billy Joe Burns was drafted in for Daryl Fordyce.
The writing was on the wall for the Blues after only five minutes when Ouon had a goal disallowed for an offside infringement.
But the home took forged into the lead on 16 minutes, courtesy of some neat build up work by Brazilian Luciano Bebe, who sent Vouho rampaging through the middle. The striker neatly rounded Blayney before tapping the ball into the empty net.
Bebe almost grabbed another minutes later, but his volley dipped inches over the crossbar.
It was all one-way traffic. Gilbert created another chance for Dickson, but he shamefully pulled his shot wide of the target.
It was only a matter of time before Limassol struck again and the goal duly arrived on 29 minutes. Gilberto’s corner kick was met by the head of the home skipper Ouon and his bullet header ballooned the net.
Angolan international Gilbert pulled all the strings in midfield for the home team. He tested Blayney early in the second half, but his effort brought a great response from the Northern Ireland international.
Not surprisingly Gilbert had a hand in his team’s third and killer goal on 56 minutes. His initial corner kick was partially, but teasing cross was powered home by Dickson, the English born Ghanaian international.
Little Robbie Garrett at last created something at the other end – Linfield’s first genuine attack – but his effort flashed wide.
Jeffrey introduced new boy Ryan Henderson, Brian McCaul and Gary Browne for the tiring Jamie Mulgrew, Peter Thompson and Mark McAllister.
But it was Blayney who saved the Blues from falling four behind, getting down brilliantly to beat away a Junior effort six minutes from time.
The Blues were given a rousing sending off by the 100-odd fans who made the journey to Cyprus – the team certainly deserved it after what was a gruelling 90 minutes. They know next week’s second leg is now a damage limitation exercise.
AEL Limassol: Degra, Airosa, Carlitos, Quon, Dede (Nikolaou 77), Junior, Gilberto, Bebe (Miguel 20), Lourenco (Sergio 7), Dickson, Vouho.
Subs: Hidi, Maykon, Parpas, Edmar.
Linfield: Blayney, Douglas, Armstrong, B Burns, Ervin, Curran, Garrett, Mulgrew (Henderson 77), Thompson (McCaul 73), Carvill, McAllister (Browne 79).
Subs: Glendinning, Quinn, Hanley, Fordyce.
Referee: KH Johnsen (Norway).