Barring a first-round upset, Celtic will meet Linfield in the second qualifying round of the Champions League. Here’s everything you need to know about the Northern Irish champions...
Celtic should have no problem at all
Linfield are more than likely to make it through the first qualifying round and set up a meeting with Celtic. Though obviously not a powerhouse themselves, they have made it to the second round in four of their last five European campaigns, beating teams from the Faroe Islands on each and every occasion. Sammarinese opponents La Fiorita, by contrast, have failed to win any of their 12 European matches, and have scored only once - in a 10-1 aggregate loss to Vaduz in 2015.
Against Celtic, though, there’s slim chance of the Northern Irish side winning either of the two legs, nevermind the overall tie. The Northern Irish top flight is a part-time league, and as evidence by their commendable performances in the Irn-Bru Cup last season, this current Linfield side would be a lower half team in the Ladbrokes Championship.
Manager David Healy has worked wonders
The former Rangers striker took over from Warren Feeney in October 2015 after the latter left to become assistant manager of Newport County. In his first season, he put the building blocks in place, righting the ship and finishing second in the table while also making it to the Irish Cup final, where they would be defeated by Glenavon. Last season they got over the hump, winning the double while also completing a sort of domestic treble by lifting the County Antrim Shield.
The league title run-in was one of the most dramatic in recent memory. Trailing Crusaders by nine points in February, Linfield would go on a tremendous run to end the campaign, taking 42 points from 40 games as they jumped above their title rivals on the penultimate weekend of the season. A 3-1 win over rivals Cliftonville on the final day clinched their first title in five years.
Ironically, Healy has something of the Neil Lennon about him in terms of his management style. On the touchline he is a fiery character and will often let his mouth get him into trouble. During a large part of his side’s run in, Healy was serving a touchline suspension having been sent to the stand on three separate occasions throughout the campaign.
He is exactly what the club needs at present as it tries to find its identity in the post-David Jeffrey era. The former boss won 31 trophies across a 17-year spell, and his presence still looms over the club. Healy has the type of big personality to handle such pressure.
Their star player is Andy Waterworth
The 31-year-old is the club’s top goalscorer and captain. He is what can only be described as a classic penalty box player. Many of his goals are scored inside the six-yard area, where he always seems to wriggle free of defenders and get on the end of crosses. He’s one of those opponents where you know exactly what he is going to do, but it’s a very different story trying to stop him. A hat-trick on the final day victory over Cliftonville helped Linfield towards the title, before he repeated the feat a week later in the 3-0 cup final victory against Coleraine.
Behind Waterworth, the best player is probably midfielder Jamie Mulgrew. The 31-year-old is a born-and-bred Linfield supporter, whose father and brother both played for the club. A skilful and creative midfielder, he was named as the writer’s player of the year at the tail end of last season.
As you may expect given his pedigree, ex-Manchester United stopper Roy Carroll is the strongest part of the club’s defence. The veteran is still capable of pulling off some outlandish saves despite his 39 years.
They are a hard-working, sum-of-their-parts side
In comparison to Crusaders, who are viewed as having a greater collection of stars in relation to the rest of the Irish League, Linfield have the reputation as being a hard-working, greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts kind of team. In terms of recent Scottish football history, they’re quite similar to the Motherwell side who finished second in consecutive seasons under Stuart McCall. They generally play 4-4-2, get the best out of some unfashionable players, and can be lethal going forward.
The never-say-die spirit of the side can best be summed up by their 2-2 draw with Glenavon. Away to the Lurgan side, who were no slouches themselves, eventually finishing sixth, Linfield had two men sent off in the opening ten minutes, including goalkeeper Carroll. Down to nine men, with defender Mark Haughey in goal, they quickly went 2-0 down, as you would expect. However, instead of accepting what looked like an inevitable defeat, they kept on fighting and would eventually make a stunning comeback, tying the game up through an injury-time Paul Smyth strike after Waterworth had cut the deficit.
There will be trouble regardless
The clubs have ruled out a meeting on 12 July and there has been discussions over moving the first leg to Celtic Park before having the return fixture in Belfast a week later. Though such a move would reduce the potential damage caused by the fixture, it’s still an unwelcomed variable for local authorities to deal with as they hope to keep a lid on any sectarian tensions that would arise from the key date in the marching season. Having the teams playing in Glasgow on the 11th or 12th would still pour fuel on the fire, and those tensions could still be bubbling under the surface when Celtic visit the following midweek.
• Research was conducted with a massive help from Kris Jack. The Scottish journalist is currently working in Northern Ireland and can be followed on Twitter here.