Linfield go into Champions League qualifying battle against New Saints
Uefa Champions League first qualifying round, first leg: The New Saints v Linfield (tonight, 7pm)
LINFIELD manager David Healy is convinced the fact the Blues are starting their European campaign against a side also in the middle of pre-season preparations is a big plus.
Last summer, Linfield exited the Champions League qualifiers at the first round to Lithuanian champions FK Zalgiris, who were in the middle of their season, before losing to Fola of Luxembourg in the third qualifying round.
Tonight, they are in Wales to take on The New Saints, who also reached the third qualifying round of last season’s Conference League, and Healy says it’s a draw both clubs will have been happy with when they came out of the hat together.
“They’re managed by an enthusiastic hungry young manger [Anthony Limbrick] who has done a great job for them in the time that he’s been there,” Healy said.
“They’ve got good experience in their team, they won the league by a huge landslide last year in terms of points, so we know the challenge that’s going to be there.
“We’ve hopefully done enough homework on them but, again, you never quite know the level that you’re going to play at and I’m sure they’re going to be the same. We’ll look forward to it, I’m sure they’ll give us the respect that we deserve, they’ve certainly got our respect.
“When the draw was made, when you saw the possibilities of who we could’ve got and, again, this isn’t to take them lightly, I’m sure they were thinking the exact same thing, it’s a great draw for both teams because we both have an opportunity, if we play well and do it right, to progress into the next round.
“Last summer, we played Zalgiris and they were 16-17 games into the season, which becomes a problem. Obviously, TNS are starting off like ourselves – they’ve played a few pre-season games, we’ve played a few pre-season games, so the challenge is there for our players.
“I think we missed an opportunity last year, losing to Fola when we did, I thought there was an opportunity to progress. So TNS, as much as it’s going to be a good game, I want to see us grab the game by the neck and be big, strong, honest when the opportunities, the key moments come along.”
Linfield warmed up for tonight’s first leg with a 2-1 friendly defeat to Scottish Premiership outfit St Mirren over the weekend, which came on the back of games against World Cup hosts Qatar and Welsh side Newtown. And it’s been a busy summer off the pitch at Windsor Park, with the revolving doors in swift motion.
Christy Manzinga was among those to depart, with the prolific striker joining Hungarian top flight club Zalaegerszeg on the expiry of his contract with the Blues. Martin Donnelly retired while Eetu Vertainen returned to parent club St Johnstone.
The most notable addition to the squad is that of forward Robbie McDaid from Glentoran, while Chris McKee has arrived from Rangers and Joel Cooper from Oxford United. And Healy had high praise for Linfield’s recruitment officer Willie McKeown for his role in these signings.
“I want to thank Willie. The conversations between myself and him over the last few weeks have been long and thorough,” he added.
“Willie commands not only huge respect from me as a person but the job for me that he’s done in my time here. There’s a lot of work been put in and without people like Willie doing the hard yards, we don’t get the opportunity to sign good players.
“On paper, we’ve signed well. Again, the club and the chairman and the board have backed me this year, like they always do, so my gratitude and thanks to the board for giving us the opportunity to build on what we started last year – the rebuilding job and the strategic plan that we were set.”