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25 Aug 2022
© Pacemaker Press

Linfield suffered European heartbreak in the cruellest of fashions with a penalty shoot-out defeat to RFS Riga in the UEFA Europa Conference League play-off second leg at Windsor Park.

The Blues dominated throughout, held the lead going into the closing seconds only to ultimately lose via the lottery that is spot-kicks.

Although scoreless at the break, Linfield could well have held the half-time advantage after being very much in control for large periods of the first 45 minutes.

Indeed, the Blues almost moved in front after a quarter-of-an-hour when Kirk Millar delivered the ball for Sam Roscoe in the six yard box but his header was saved by keeper Pavels Steinbors.

Then, later in the half, the visiting keeper gathered a glancing Robbie McDaid effort as Linfield continued to press albeit without quite being able to find a way through.

David Healy's side came even closer early in the second half when, following a defensive error, McDaid pounced to have an effort on goal which Steinbors did well to keep out while Millar was unable to convert the follow up.

The danger posed by RFS was made evident not long after that when Emerson Santana raced clear and only the alert actions of Chris Johns kept him from finding the net.

Linfield kept pressing, however, and almost snatched the opening goal on 83 minutes through substitute Ethan Devine but his header from another Millar ball was collected by Steinbors.

The Blues came even closer after that but the ball somehow stayed out after some pinball in the box with another substitute, Eetu Vertainen, trying to scramble the ball over amid frantic Latvian defending.

Then, deep into stoppage time, Daniel Finlayson almost sealed it only to agonisingly hit the post.

Both sides had their chances early in extra-time with Vertainen flashing an effort wide at one end before play switched for Stefan Panic to test Johns with a curling right-foot drive from outside the area.

However, the goal that Linfield so richly deserved eventually arrived on 104 minutes. Finlayson and Millar combined for the latter to send over another cross from the right with it falling for Kyle McClean to unleash an unstoppable effort past the so far unbeatable Steinbors.

But right at the end of extra-time the ground was cast into utter disbelief when, on the counter attack, RFS bagged an equaliser after one last desperate attack saw the ball come in for the left only for the unfortunate Jimmy Callacher to send it into his own net in off the underside of the bar.

Perhaps unsurprisingly RFS bounced back from their last gasp reprieve to win the shootout 4-2 on penalties. Matthew Clarke and Ethan Devine failed to find the net with Linfield's first two kicks and from that there was no way back.