Larne and Linfield aim to keep Irish League hopes alive in Europe
TWO have exited Europe. Two remain and tonight champions Linfield and history makers Larne will bid to keep the Irish League's involvement in continental competition going this season.
Following their defeat to Zalgiris Vilnius in the Champions League, David Healy's men have dropped into the new Europa Conference League where they join Larne, who did what Glentoran and Coleraine couldn't and made it into the second qualifying round.
Not too shabby for Tiernan Lynch's side who had never played in Europe until earlier this month. Beating Bala Town from Wales was one for the record books. Overcoming AGF Aarhus would be a mighty shock.
The Danish team will be big favourites for the tie which kicks off with the first leg at Inver Park this evening (7.30pm) but Larne have a taste for European action and won't give it up without a fight.
Midfielder John Herron said: "The job in the last round was to get through and I felt we dominated to win the tie and create more history for the club and the town.
"European games are different to Irish League games and you have to defend really well. That starts from the front. If you get that platform it gives you a chance to win matches with the talent we have up front.
"People may doubt us for this round but as the gaffer (Lynch) says we are not just here to take part, we are here to perform."
Inside Inver Park tonight there will be hundreds of socially distanced Larne fans generating a fantastic atmosphere. No doubt the transfer listing of popular playmaker Marty Donnelly and influential goalkeeper Conor Devlin will crop up in conversations in the stands.
Ronan Hale, Davy McDaid, Fuad Sule, Jeff Hughes and others have enough quality for the chatter to turn to them in what promises to be an intriguing encounter.
Linfield's meeting with Bosnian champions Borac Banja Luka could also be a compelling clash with Blues boss David Healy determined to leave Windsor Park with a fighting chance in next week's away return.
Healy said: "It is a tough tie but one we should embrace. They are probably more of a British style team and pretty aggressive with and without the ball. We will prepare the players the way we want to play and give it a good shot.
"I want us to be ruthless and clinical and have spoken to the players about improving our decision making in both boxes.
"In the two games (against Vilnius) we have played so far this season we conceded a second goal on 45 minutes. If you are coming in 2-0 down in both matches you are going to be up against it. It is important we cut out the small errors that cost us in both games in the Champions League. Also it would be nice to take the lead in the game and give ourselves something to really fight for."
Linfield will look to captain Jamie Mulgrew and Chris Shields to win the midfield battle where the Bosnians have been strong domestically. If they do that the Blues can make inroads but Borac pushed Romanians Cluj all the way in the Champions League before losing in extra-time last week so Healy's men have their work cut out.
Meanwhile after saying that he was staying on as Dundalk manager, having been linked to the Northern Ireland Under-21 role, Vinny Perth will seek a solid performance from his players in their Europa Conference League match at home to Levadia Tallinn from Estonia (8pm). The other League of Ireland side in action, Bohemians, travel to play F91 Dudelange (5.30pm) and will fancy their chances of overcoming the Luxembourg side.