Linfield have work to do in Luxembourg
David Healy’s Linfield can still dare to dream – but their Europa Conference League qualification hopes are now hanging by a thread!
The Danske Bank Premiership title holders last night produced another gutsy performance against an impressive Fola Esch at Windsor Park, but the result means they must travel to Luxembourg looking for a miracle if they are to claim an inaugural play-off place.
Following their astonishing 4-0 aggregate victory over Bosnian side Borac Banja Luka, Healy’s boys were just not at clinical this time against Luxembourg’s oldest football club – the game played in front of an ecstatic 3,000 home fans. What a roar there was when skipper Jamie Mulgrew led his boys from the tunnel.
Healy’s boys got off to the best possible start with new boy Billy Chadwick shooting them into the lead only for the visitors to clinically hit back through a brilliant strike from Stefano Bensi.
Substitute Gauthier Caron then rubbed salt in the gaping Linfield wounds by hitting the winner with three minutes left.
Healy took a huge gamble before kick-off, leaving out the in-form Christy Manzinga, who was forced off against Borac in Bosnia with a hamstring problem. Obviously, the striker’s fitness was still a problem, although he was named among the nine substitutes.
Niall Quinn also dropped out, replaced by new high profile signing from Dundalk Chris Shields, who fitted seamlessly into his midfielder berth, while another new face Billy Chadwick – on loan from Hull City – took over from Manzinga.
It was the visitors who asked the early questions with Mirza Mustafic producing a nice turn, but his shot failed to test Chris Johns before Gregory Grisez fired dangerously across the face of goal. Johns was then forced into serious action, getting down low to clutch a low shot from Jules Diallo.
After soaking the early pressure, the Blues struck in devastating style on nine minutes.
Chadwick picked the pocket of a dithering Julien Klien and, having spotted Emanuel Cabria off his line, the striker nonchalantly drilled the ball low under the goalkeeper’s diving body.
The Blues then had a let-off on 18 minutes. Cammy Palmer’s error resulted in Diallo drifting into the box only to see his low shot expertly saved by Johns.
Healy’s team had one last sniff of a second goal just before the interval when Chadwick was hauled down 25-yards out by a clumsy tackle from Gilson Delgado, but Kirk Millar could only fire his free kick into the defensive wall. Fola were only inches away from an equaliser on 54 minutes when Bensi’s wickedly hit 25-yard free kick whistled past the post with most of the entourage on the visitors’ bench up celebrating a goal.
But the Blues had a glorious chance to double their lead on 66 minutes when defender Jimmy Callacher connected with a Kirk Millar free only to see his header loop inches over the top.
They were made to pay for that miss because Fola were level with 21 minutes remaining. Bensi picked up a pass on the edge of the box before curling home a beauty – and there was nothing Johns could do this time.
Bensi then blotted his copybook by missing a sitter on 78 minutes, blasting wildly over the top from only eight yards. But he made amends three minutes from time when his free kick crashed off the post, falling perfectly for Caron to blast home.