David Healy’s Europa League dream is well and truly alive and well following a night of drama at Windsor Park.
Linfield produced possibly their best ever performance against European opposition at a bouncing Windsor Park to put them in with touching distance of the Europa League group stages.
Classy Qarabag arrived at Windsor Park looking to recover from the disappointment of being dumped out of the Champions League last week – but they were hit with a sensational performance from the Irish League champions, who will now look to finish the job in Buku next week.
Striker Shayne Lavery was the toast of this performance bagging two brilliant goals – his second was worth the admission money alone.
It didn’t start well for the Blues as they fell behind to a Faycal Reherras goal. But they were level through a Mark Stafford header before Lavery went to work.
What a week it has been for Stafford. Not only did he celebrate his birthday on Tuesday, but he also became a father for the second time last Saturday. Unfortunately, substitute Magaye Gueye hit an injury time penalty to make the Blues job that much more difficult next week.
Linfield, of course, were creating a little piece of history by appearing in the Group stage play-off round. They have already reeled in close to to £1.3m. But that figure could shoot up to £4m in the event of them getting a result in the return leg.
Healy made three changes to the team that claimed a morable-boosting 3-2 victory against Sutjeska last week, with Jimmy Callacher Andrew Mitchell and Joel Cooper drafted in to replace Ryan McGivern, Stephen Fallon and Kirk Millar.
The Blues had an early scare after only two minutes when the dangerous Mahir Emreli curled a delicious low shot just past the post with Rohan Ferguson beaten.
But the visitors were ahead on 15 minutes. Maksim Medvedev scooped a great pass into the path of Rherras and his shot arrowed into the top corner.
The Blues, now literally on the ropes, had a let-off five minutes later. Rherras skipped past the challenge of Chris Casement on the left and crossed for Michel, who rapped the post from only six yards. It was all one-way traffic. Striker Abbas Huseynov was next to threaten only to see his vicious low shot crash against the legs of a diving Ferguson.
Rherras then brought another great save from Ferguson following an electric 25-yard solo dash and a neat inter-change with Huseynov.
But the international arena erupted five minutes before the break when the Blues equalized with their first attack. Cooper was hauled down by Huseynov right on the touchline and, when Andy Mitchell whipped in the free kick, Stafford got up above everyone else to power home with his head.
Incredibly, the Blues were in front seconds before the break. Again, Mitchell was the provider, floating in a corner kick from the left and this time Lavery out jumped the Qarabag defence to head home – astonishing!
After the restart, Lavery tested Vagner with a speculative drive before the dangerous Romero took off down the right before cutting in and firing a low shot that Ferguson did well to clutch at the base of the post.
But the Blues, growing in confidence, went close at the other end with Mitchell hammering a 25-yard free kick wide. Then, just second later Matty Clarke stung the hands of Vagner with a vicious shot from the edge of the box.
The roof was raised off Windsor Park with 15 minutes remaining with Lavery’s stunning second goal – it was sensational. He muscled Huseynov off the ball just outside the centre circle, roared into the box before stepping past the challenge from Gara Garayev and his shot left Vagner totally helpless.
But just as the Linfield fans were preparing a big celebration, Clarke chopped down Romero inside the box and referee Sandro Scharer pointed to the spot. Gueye cheekily deinked the ball over the diving Ferguson.
It may have taken the gloss away from the result, but the performance from this Linfield side will live long in the memory.