Europa League play-off: Linfield earn stunning 3-2 first-leg win over Qarabag
Two goals from an inspired Shayne Lavery helped Linfield earn one of their best-ever results as they stunned FK Qarabag of Azerbaijan 3-2 in the Europa League play-off first leg.
Faycal Rherras' goal put Qarabag ahead as the visitors dominated early on.
But goals before the break from Mark Stafford and Lavery turned the game on its head before the latter notched an outstanding solo goal on 75 minutes.
Magaye Gueye scored an injury-time penalty for Qarabag.
The second leg takes place in Azerbaijan next Thursday.
Linfield are aiming to become the first Irish League club to qualify for the Europa League group stages and, while the conceding of a late penalty was a blow to those chances, it will not detract too much from a memorable occasion.
The home crowd had answered the club's pre-match call to get behind the players and were in fine voice throughout, particularly in the second half when they barely stopped singing as they sensed their team were heading towards a major result.
David Healy's men had beaten HB Torshavn and FK Sutjeska to get to this stage, while Qarabag dropped into the Europa League after losing their Champions League qualifier to Apoel.
Outstanding Lavery leads Linfield fightback
Former Everton striker Lavery was already establishing himself as something of a fans favourite at Windsor Park with his all-action, energetic style after signing for the Irish Premiership champions in the summer.
That status will have been significantly elevated with another display full of running finished off by one of the best goals the stadium has seen from a Linfield player, as he got on the scoresheet for a third consecutive European tie.
With French midfielder Bastien Hery trying to get as close to him as often as possible, the pair looked to be the home side's only attacking threat in an opening period bossed by the visitors.
But that domination was broken in the 40th minute when Andrew Mitchell produced a superb inswinging free-kick from the left and Stafford rose to power a bullet header home from close range.
Lavery then showed his poacher's instinct in first-half injury-time when he found space in the six-yard box to get on the end of a Mitchell corner and nod in Linfield's second.
If Lavery's first-half display was good, his solo run and goal in the 75th minute was sensational as he bustled his way on to the ball and past two defenders before cutting inside another and finding the net with an exquisite curling finish inside the far post.
Qarabag utterly dominant early on
As momentous a night as it was in south Belfast, the quality displayed by the visitors means Linfield still have a massive job on their hands if they are to make that historic leap into the group stages.
All the warnings before kick-off - from Blues boss Healy and a Dundalk camp which lost over two legs to Qarabag in the Champions League - were of how dangerous the visitors' wide men were.
Jaime Romero and Abdellah Zoubir lived up to their billing in an opening 40-minute spell during which they really deserved to be more than a goal up - and would have been but for the woodwork and some great goalkeeping by Rohan Ferguson.
Mahir Emreli fired inches wide after just two minutes and Chris Casement had to block a Zoubir shot before the opening goal arrived in the 15th minute.
Ferguson punched a corner which was only partially cleared after coming back into the box and a ball over the top of the defence found Rherras who lobbed a controlled finish over Ferguson and into the top corner.
Michel hit the post from a left-wing Rherras cross before Ferguson made a fine save from Romero, from which the Blues counter-attacked and won the corner that led to the equaliser.
Healy's heroes show maturity and composure
The maturity and composure Healy's players displayed in the second half was immense and their formation made sure the visitors' efforts on goal were limited, although Emreli gave the home crowd a scare when he struck the inside of the post four minutes after Lavery's wonder goal.
Jamie Mulgrew, as ever, played a pivatol role in midfield with Mitchell beside him and Hery just ahead of them also performing superbly. The Frenchman was definitely less advanced than he was in the first half, but his quality on the ball and choice of pass throughout ensured the momentum of the game never strayed too far from Linfield's grasp.
Qarabag were stunned by the Blues fightback but will have been mightily relieved to score the injury-time penalty, with Gueye dinking the ball down the middle after Matthew Clarke fouled Romero in the box.
All roads now lead to Azerbaijan next Thursday and Linfield, unlike last weekend when they lost at home to Coleraine, have this weekend off to prepare for a second leg that will be of enormous importance to the Belfast club.
- 2StaffordBooked at 29mins
- 9CooperBooked at 54minsSubstituted forMillarat 90+1'minutes
- 14LaverySubstituted forWaterworthat 80'minutes
- 13da Silva
- 23RherrasBooked at 89mins
- 8Marcos MaderaBooked at 68mins
- 10Quintana SosaSubstituted forGueyeat 67'minutes
- 11EmreliBooked at 87mins
- 3Ferreira Silva
- Sandro Schärer
- Shots on Target