Linfield boss David Healy has seen his men battle bravely and without any lack of effort to see off both HB Torshavn and FK Sutjeska in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League. The Blues have left not even the smallest bit of regret on the pitch as they have blazed a trail in this European adventure — and they are now preparing to do so once again when they host Azerbaijan champions Qarabag in a Europa League play-off first leg clash at Windsor Park tonight.
It’s a game the club’s fans are eagerly anticipating. And if Healey can inspire his troops to chalk up a victory, his side will become the first Irish Premiership manager to reach the Europa League group stage. History is on the line here. As you would imagine, it’s a target that Linfield defender Mark Stafford and his team-mates have firmly in their sights. And with a game plan, desire and determination, Stafford says he believes that victory can be attained.
Former Ballinamallard United skipper Stafford, who is aged 32, said the run the Blues have gone on has boosted the confidence of the Belfast based side — and that a warm weather training camp in Spain has done wonders to help with the preparation needed ahead of such a big game. A win and progression through to the group stages would also significantly bolster the club’s coffers.
“The run has been fantastic for our confidence. The club went the extra mile for us by taking us away to Marbella for five days to train. We felt fit coming home, playing in the Faroes and playing the friendlies in Windsor against the Scottish clubs. We worked really hard in pre-season and we knew we could cover large distances with high-intensity running in the heat, and that really helped when the going got tough.”
Healy, who has been at the helm at Linfield for four years during which time he has snared five domestic trophies, insists his charges can’t approach the game on the back foot and points out that facing such a well-established side means being at their best is going to be crucial.
The overall objective is to approach the game with caution but at the same time tap in to the attacking mentality to try to get a foothold on the tie from the first leg. He added:
‘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.”
One thing is for sure, Healy will want his side to put behind them the 4-2 league defeat at the hands of Coleraine at Windsor Park at the weekend. Ben Doherty took 15 seconds to break the deadlock before an own goal from Ryan McGivern and a Stephen O’Donnell strike giving the Bannsiders a 3-0 lead. Joel Cooper and Shayne Lavery responded with goals for the Blues but it wasn’t to be and an Emmett McGuckin goal on his debut sealed the victory.