Linfield's luck of the European draws runs out against Norway's Rosenborg
LINFIELD have enjoyed a fair old amount of luck in European draws in recent years but fortune no longer favoured the Blues last month.
After four consecutive pairings with – and subsequent progress past - teams from the Faroe Islands, then likewise against La Fiorita from San Marino, the Irish League champions were handed a much tougher test.
Rosenborg from Norway have a huge amount of European experience, including knocking Ajax out in a Europa League play-off less than two years ago, having been edged out of the Champions League qualifiers only 1-0 on aggregate by Celtic.
Rosenborg played 14 matches in Europe last season alone. That campaign began by knocking out Iceland’s Valur, playing Celtic four more times, in both the Champions and Europa Leagues, with a 5-0 aggregate victory over Cork City along the way to the latter competition’s Group B.
That last tie’s outcome should serve as strong warning to Linfield about Rosenborg’s quality, and the fact that they have re-established themselves as top dogs in Norway, winning a fourth title in a row last year.
That status may appear questionable at present with Rosenborg down in seventh spot in their domestic Eliteserien table having played almost half their league matches – and averaging just over a goal per game.
However, ‘BK’ have been working their way back from a dreadful start to the season under the new management of Eirik Horneland, winless from their first five league matches. In contrast, they have won five of their last six in the Eliteserien, although they did go out of the Norwegian Cup at home, losing a penalty shoot-out to Aalesund.
Former Arsenal forward Nicklas Bendtner, still only 31, is the best-known name in the Rosenborg ranks, but the Dane has not featured for them recently, playing just five league matches this year without scoring and is not in the 19-strong panel which has travelled to Belfast.
Their preferred 4-3-3 system tends to have its attack spearheaded by Norwegian Alexander Soderland, flanked by two pacy 23-year-old Nigerians, Samuel Adegbenro and Babajide David Akintola.
Linfield’s own forward options have been boosted by the recent signing of 20-year-old striker Shayne Lavery from Everton – the Aghagallon lad has risen through the Northern Ireland underage ranks and played in last summer’s senior friendly in Panama.
The Blues’ regular goal-getter, Andy Waterworth, also got some much-needed pre-season game-time in Saturday’s 4-2 friendly defeat at home to St Johnstone, in which Lavery netted a very early opener. However, Michael O'Connor has been left out of the squad with a move to Scotland apparently imminent.
Healy has named 15-year-old midfielder Charlie Allen in his match-day squad, with the teenager reportedly attracting interest from top English and Scottish clubs.
More familiar faces around Windsor Park are more likely to see more of the ball tonight, though, notably defenders Jimmy Callacher, Chris Casement, and Mark Stafford, although Mark Haughey and Ryan McGivern are still working their way back from injuries.
A disciplined defensive effort will be required from the Blues tonight (7.45pm) if they are to keep this tie alive for the second leg in Trondheim next Wednesday.
More probably, the Blues will go into the second qualifying round of the Europa League, where they may well face more Faroese opposition, HB Tórshavn, or HJK Helsinki of Finland.
Airtricity champs Dundalk pushed Rosenborg hard in the Champions League qualifers two summers ago, losing out 3-2 on aggregate, and the Lilywhites will be more confident of making progress this year.
Dundalk’s recent European exploits have them ranked 129th whereas their opponents, Latvia’s Riga, are down at 392. Dundalk host the first leg at Oriel Park (7.45pm) and the prize for the winners will be a second qualifying round pairing with Partizani of Albania or Azerbaijan’s Qaraba?.