Referee :David Smajc (SVN)
Linfield Scorers :
Daniel Finlayson 54', Ben Hall 79'
Pogoń Szczecin Scorers :
Kamil Grosicki 13', Joao Gamboa 40', Mariusz Malec 64', Efthymios Koulouris 66', Mariusz Fornalczyk 90+4'
Linfield Team :
Chris Johns (GK), Daniel Finlayson, Ben Hall, Matthew Clarke ©, Jack Scott, Kyle McClean (Jamie Mulgrew 81’), Chris Shields, Kirk Millar, Joel Cooper, Chris McKee (John Robertson 81’), Matthew Fitzpatrick
Linfield Subs not used :
David Walsh (GK), Michael Newberry, Ryan McKay, Josh Archer, Aodhan Doherty, Max Haygarth, Andrew Clarke, Liam McStravick, Rhys Annett, Ethan Devine
Pogoń Szczecin Team :
Dante Stapica (GK), Linus Wahlqvist, Benedikt Zech, Mariusz Malec, Leonardo Koutris, Joao Gamboa, Mateusz Legowski, Marcel Wedrychowski, Luka Zahovic, Kamil Grosicki (C), Efthymis Koulouris
It was a night of ifs, buts and maybes for the Blues who were defeated 5-2 by Polish outfit Pogon Szczecin in the first leg of their Q2 UEFA Conference League tie at Windsor Park, despite a resilient effort.
David Healy’s men didn’t get the started they wanted as they fell behind on 13 minutes. Linfield defender Matthew Clarke swept across to meet a ball over the top, but his attempted clearance struck an opposing player and Clarke then slipped which made the attacker favourite in a footrace. Just as the striker was about to pull the trigger, he fell to the ground with Clarke adjudged to have gone through the back of him. Former Hull City star Kamil Grosicki stepped up to send Chris Johns the wrong way with a cool penalty.
The Blues responded well and grew into the game more and more as the half went on. A few well-constructed attacks and dangerous crosses didn’t quite fall, with the closest being when Joel Cooper beat a man and fired in a low cross which took a deflection and evaded the blue shirts in the area.
Linfield also put together a good move which led to Jack Scott finding himself in acres of space high up the right hand side and he crossed with pace towards Matthew Fitzpatrick who couldn’t make contact on his attempted bicycle kick. Soon after, Scott then threaded a pass to send Cooper in behind, but the angle was against him and he had to cross which was knocked behind for a corner.
David Healy’s team then tasted the harsh nature of European football as a bit of quality saw the visitors double their lead five minutes before the break, coming off the back of a strong Linfield spell. A corner came in from the right and Joao Gamboa got across the front post to volley in clinically.
Half Time: Linfield 0 – 2 Pogon Szczecin
Whilst the Blues’ first half display showed some positive aspects, whatever was said at half-time led to them going up a few gears and for the first twenty-odd minutes of the second half they were well on top. An early chance came for Matthew Fitzpatrick as Chris Shields’ lob into the box was flicked on by Daniel Finlayson, however the striker was unable to get a touch on it at close range. Soon after, Fitzpatrick went down in the box at close range, claiming a defender went through the back of him, however his claims for a penalty were turned away.
A strong spell of pressure then paid off for Linfield as they pulled a goal back on 54 minutes. Kirk Millar’s free-kick delivery from wide left was dropped by Pogon’s Croatian goalkeeper and defender Daniel Finlayson pounced to finish like a seasoned striker as his left-footed shot found the top corner.
And, with their tails up, Linfield thought they were level on the hour-mark. Jack Scott charged forward from deep to unlock the opposing defence and he picked out Chris McKee to his left – his left-footed strike drew a great save from the ‘keeper, and Matthew Fitzpatrick followed in to convert the rebound. However, the goal was controversially ruled out for offside.
The Blues were then hit with a sucker-punch, six minutes later. Another dangerous corner was delivered by former Poland star Kamil Grosicki and it was met by a strong near-post header which drew a wonderful save from Chris Johns who was helpless as Mariusz Malec pounced to tap in the rebound to restore Pogon’s two-goal advantage.
Linfield were caught on the break after overcommitting as the Polish visitors added a fourth goal two minutes later with a well-worked counter down the right as Linus Wahlqvist pulled the ball back for Greece international forward Efthymios Koulouris to arrow into the bottom corner.
The Blues once again came back fighting and pulled one back on 78 minutes when a long ball was knocked down by Matthew Fitzpatrick to central defender Ben Hall who classily volleyed in from the edge of the box to make it 4-2.
And they thought they’d got another back to make it 4-3 with three minutes remaining as John Robertson’s cross found its way through to the back post area where Kirk Millar brilliantly hammered in a crisp, low strike. However, as the Blues were awaiting the restart at the centre circle, the linesman decided that the Linfield forward was obstructing the eyeline of the goalkeeper from an offside position.
To add to Linfield’s frustration, as they admirably continued to push deep into injury time, they were again caught on the break as Grosicki raced away before squaring the ball to Mariusz Fornalczyk who couldn’t miss at close range.
The Blues will look back at those key moments and big decisions at important times in the match. Who knows what might have happened if they’d got themselves level during the match? Whilst disappointed, David Healy can take pride in the resilience shown by his team and be happy with their attacking play against a team littered with international experience, whilst he’ll also lament goals from mistakes and set-pieces which he might feel were avoidable. It’s now on to Szczecin for next week’s away leg which the Blues enter three goals down.
Full Time: Linfield 2 – 5 Pogon Szczecin