Linfield’s Europa League dream hit the fenders last night against Swiss giants FC Zurich at Windsor Park.
The Blues went into the first leg of the third qualifying round with a confidence that was still fragile from last week’s sobering Champions League defeat to Bodo/Glimt – they lost the second leg 8-0 – so this is there was always going to be a massive test of character.
Ayegun Tosin and Wilfred Gnonto scored goals to give the Swiss champions an edge when David Healy’s men travel to Letzgrund next week. European competition.
Franco Foda’s side are now favorites to face Scottish club Hearts in the Europa League group stage play-offs, while the Blues will advance to the Europa League play-offs against RFS (Latvia) or Hibernians (Malta), who last night played in a draw 1-1.
The result meant that the Blues acknowledged their impressive undefeated home record. They finished the entire season with a flawless record on the international stage and although they defeated both TNS and Bodo in a European fight, Zurich was too far away.
Healy’s units were desperate to shake off their fatigue after that horrific experience in Norway, where they lost the influential Kirk Millar just 20 minutes later when he was sent off for tackling the ball on the goal line to prevent a goal. He was given a one-game suspension.
This meant that Healy had to change his starting line-up, handing over the jersey to Eet Vertainen and replacing Jordan Stewart with midfield workhorse Kyle McClean.
Defender Jimmy Callacher was still out due to injury, but new Oxford United player Joel Cooper took his place on the bench for the first time since the injury against TNS.
Spurred on by their noisy, flag-waving group of over 400 fans who sang and chanted throughout the game, it took Zurich just eight minutes to take the lead.
In their first tangible attack, they blew the Blues to shreds with a beautiful heel strike from Antonio Marchesano that sent Tosin into the box and his finish was superb, neatly clearing the ball past a stuck Chris Jones.
This was the first time the Blues had fallen behind in a home game for over a year.
But they showed excellent resilience and really should have equalized in the 18th minute. McClean’s free kick from the left ricocheted off several bodies and landed enticingly on Robbie McDaid, but instead of opening the scoring for his new club, he was only able to hit goalkeeper Janick Brecher in the legs.
And they were close again after McClean’s corner kick, which Sam Roscoe headed over the net before the ball was cleared by defender Cheick Conde.
Then a powerful Finnish striker Vertainen broke through on the left flank, cut through the defender Lindrit Kamberi and made a canopy, which was masterfully executed by Brecher.
But the guests were always dangerous when they went forward, and in another lightning raid Gnonto found Jonathan Okita, who threw a 22-yard ball over the crossbar.
And once again they scared the Blues nine minutes before the break. This time, Gnonto squirmed and taunted him as he made his way past Roscoe before releasing the ball, only to see his shot deflected by Jones’ gloves.
In another quick-fire attack, the industrious Marquesano sent Italian international Gnonto down the left flank, only to see his efforts absorbed by the vigilant Jones.
The Blues went looking for an equalizer and were nearly rewarded when Cambury knocked a McDade right cross off Vertainen’s head.
A few seconds later, defender Ben Hall joined his attackers, who managed to head into Matty Clark’s corner, and when the ball fell on Vertainen, Brecher saved his shot with scuffs.
The arrival of Cooper also gave the Blues new momentum, and when he fell to a clumsy challenge from Mirlind Krieziou, the home supporters jumped to their feet demanding a penalty. Italian referee Marco di Bello was not so convinced.
But in the 64th minute, Zurich struck again. This Gnonto man swept through the center, leaving Hall behind before taking his place in the bottom corner – game, set and match.
LINFIELD: Jones, Byrne, Shields, McClean (Stewart, 68), McDaid (Cooper, 53), Hall, E. Clark (Devine, 87), Finlayson, Fallon, Mulgrew (Palmer, 68), Vertain (McKee, 68) .
Unused subs: Walsh, Williamson, Newberry, Pepper, Quinn, Clark, Archer.
FC ZURICH: Brecher, Cambury, Aliti, Seinais (Hornschuh 61), Marchesano (Avdiai 72), Okita (Metz 61), Tosin (Rohner 72), Conde, Boraniyasevich, Gnonto (Krasniki 85), Chiesiu.
Unused subs: Kostadinovic, De Nitti, Omeragic, Hodza, Seeler, Sauter, Gogia.
REFEREE: Marco di Bello (Italy).
Man of the match: Wilfried Gnonto
Match Rating: 8/10