Football/Soccer

We won't stand off Qarabag insists Linfield boss David Healy ahead of Euro showdown

David Healy's Linfield have recorded impressive victories over HB Torshavn and FK Sutjeska on their way to the play-off stage of the Europa League qualifiers. Picture by PA
Neil Loughran

Uefa Europa League play-off round, first leg: Linfield v Qarabag (tonight, 7.45pm, Windsor Park)

LINFIELD stand just 180 minutes away from a place in the Europa League group stages – but boss David Healy is under no illusions about the size of the task facing his men as they chase that dream against Qarabag tonight.

The Irish League champions have had a hugely impressive European campaign so far, taking care of HB Torshavn and FK Sutjeska to leave themselves within touching distance of the big time.

However, the serious business starts tonight when they welcome the Azerbaijani kingpins to Windsor Park.

Qarabag have been crowned domestic champions for the last six years in a row, and reached the Champions League group stages two years ago, taking on Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and Roma.

Already this summer they have beaten League of Ireland outfit Dundalk in the Champions League qualifiers, before bowing out to Apoel Nicosia, despite taking a 2-1 lead into the home leg.

Instead of taking on Champions League semi-finalists Ajax last night, they find themselves in Belfast preparing to face a Blues side determined to spring another surprise.

“It’s a very tough challenge,” said Healy.

“Qarabag are an established European club - they will be smarting, they will be disappointed [after losing to Apoel]. They'll be disappointed having won the first leg in Cyprus before going back home, where they traditionally have a solid record.

"Their 2-0 defeat was surprising to me. They would have seen it as a good opportunity to progress in the Champions League.

“People here might think ‘it’s only an Azerbaijan team, how good can they be?’ but when you look at players they have, and the nationalities they have playing for them, they’re a well established team.

“In the back of their mind they might be thinking that coming to Belfast mightn’t have been plan A, so hopefully there is a wee bit of a mindset there - ‘this isn’t where we want to be, we should be playing Ajax in the Champions League’.”

Qarabag possess plenty of quality, with their main threats coming from Spanish midfielder Michel and wingers Richard Almeida de Oliveira and Simeon Slavchev – though midfielder Richard and defender Rahil Mammadov are both suspended for tonight’s game.

Even in their absence, there is no doubt about the step up in class. But Healy insists Linfield won’t be trying to hang on when they run out at Windsor Park tonight.

“We will need to play better than we have done in those games and we’ll need to be at our best to get a result,” he said.

“There’s been dangers, good players we’ve played against, different obstacles to try and push out of the way, and the players have done that.

“There’s no point me sitting here and saying we’re a tie away from getting into the Europa League, should we be going on the back foot? Certainly not. We’ll not be on the back foot.

“The team we start with, and the team we finish with, will be of an attacking nature. In the games we have played, it’s been an attacking bench and attacking substitutions so I don’t see why we should change too much.

“We've benefited from an attacking style so far so, although Qarabag might be a step-up, I don't see why we should change that."

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