Frustration for Linfield as they crash out of Champions League
David Healy’s Linfield were dumped out of the UEFA Champions League in a night of drama at Windsor Park.
Two brilliant first half strikes from former Hearts player Saulinus Mikoliunas – he was a Scottish Cup winner with the Edinburgh club – and Ogenyi Onazia, who spent four years with crack Italian side Lazio, ended the Blues interest at the first hurdle.
Although former Dundalk midfielder Chris Shields pulled one back for the home side after the break, it was too little too late.
The visitors finished the game with only NINE men after having Elhadj Pape Diaw and substitute Karolis Uzela – he was only on the pitch for four minutes – dismissed.
The Lithuanians arrived in South Belfast with a two-goal cushion, established in Vilnius last week courtesy of strikes from Hugo Videmont and Tomislav Kis, while Blues goalkeeper Chris Johns was credited with an own goal.
Christy Manzinga did give Healy’s troops a glimmer of hope by reducing the deficit, but it was always going to be an uphill job for the Danske Bank Premiership champions.
The result means Linfield now drop into the Europa Conference League’s second qualifying round – three wins away from a possible group stage. They will face Bosnian side Borac Banja Luka back in Belfast next Thursday.
Zalgiris, four months into their domestic season, will meet Ferenvaros, of Hungry, in the next round of the Champions League.
It was the first time supporters were allowed back to see the boys in blue – there were 980 fans back at the international venue, unfortunately they didn’t witness one of their team’s famous European nights.
In fact, the Blues were given an early scare when the lively Videmont rounded Shields to set up Ogenyi Onazi, who forced Johns into a low save at the base of the post.
Then another left-wing dash by Videmont, who tricked his way past Tria Hume, created a wonderful chance for Jakub Sylvestr but he shamefully scooped the ball over the crossbar from no more than four yards.
Healy’s side retaliated with skipper Jamie Mulgrew taking off on a surging solo run before finding Matty Clarke, who flashed that ball across the face of the goal, with Manzinga only inches away from touching home.
But the visitors grabbed the vital opening strike on 17 minutes – a goal that will give defender Michael Newberry nightmares.
The big Geordie reached quickly to mop up Milen Gamakov’s cross, but his clearance fell invitingly for 36-year-old Mikoliunas – he has earned 96 caps for Lithuania - and his ripping half-volley almost tore out the netting.
Linfield, playing some slick one-touch stuff, attempted to come back off the ropes only for defender Jimmy Callacher to see his header flash over the top before Niall Quinn’s teasing cross just eluded the head of Manzinga.
But Zalgiris ended the tie as a contest 60 seconds before the interval with a stunner from Onazi. The Nigerian midfielder latched on to a return pass form Sylvestr before ramming a bullet of a drive into the top corner, beyond the grasping glove of Johns.
The Blues roared from the traps after the restart, determined to repair some of the damage and Hume was unlucky not to have pulled one back when his header looped over the top following a Kirk Millar – he was making his 300th appearance for the club – corner kick.
Zalgaris quickly shifted things to the other end and goal scorer Mikoliunes turned provider, whipping in a great cross for Francis Kyeremeh to head wide.
Healy’s troops clawed their way back into the tie on 65 minutes when Quinn’s free kick was met by Callacher, whose header was pawed off the line by Diaw. Maltese referee Matthew De Gabriele not only awarded the penalty kick but sent off the giant defender.
New boy Shields held his nerve from the spot, sending Edvinas Gertmonas the wrong way to set up a nervy final 20 minutes for the visitors.
And, the Belfast side almost grabbed an equaliser on 71 minutes when substitute Jordan Stewart’s cross was met by Quinn, whose first time flick was superbly touched over the top by Gertmonas.
Zalgiris then had Uzela dismissed on 89 minutes for a crude challenge on Cammy Palmer.