Linfield 0, Cork 1: A good night for Cork City in Belfast, but it could have been better.
Sweden’s BK Hacken await John Caulfield’s side in the second qualifying round of the Europa League if the SSE Airtricity League side can complete the job in the second leg against their Irish League opponents in Turner’s Cross next week.
In truth, the tie should be over as it is. City were, as expected, much the better side for a variety of reasons and the solitary goal — claimed by Sean Maguire from the penalty spot — was a poor enough return for the visitors, given the dominance they enjoyed in possession, territory, and opportunities.
For Linfield, whose season doesn’t start until August, this was a first competitive game since losing their cup final to Glenavon 53 days earlier. Their only outing since had been a 3-0 friendly runabout against second-tier Knockbreda.
It showed against a visiting side deep into its own domestic campaign and one that had been in superb form in the league before a three-week break which ended last weekend with a 0-0 draw against Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght.
Caulfield had rued the lack of chances created by his men that night in Dublin and they went about rectifying that here in Belfast on a pitch that looked pristine until the warm-up and a chill rain made its mark.
Cork played some decent football, regardless. With the likes of Karl Sheppard, Alan Bennett, and Kenny Browne cleared to play having shaken off pre-match injuries or illness, they bossed the opening exchanges against the hosts who, understandably, took time to reach the required pitch.
Stephen Dooley found the side netting after just three minutes before Roy Carroll, making his Linfield debut at the back end of a career involving stints at Manchester United, West Ham United, and Olympiakos, made the first of a series of saves.
None of the first-half efforts from Gearoid Morrissey, Seam Maguire, Garry Buckley, and Steven Beattie were either hard or accurate enough to warrant alarm for the 38-year old, whose experience and calm helped settle his new colleagues.
Linfield started teenage star Paul Smyth up front on his own and, with prolific scorer Andy Waterworth playing off him, the youngster found it difficult to break free of the physically-imposing rearguard, given the long, high balls aimed his way.
David Healy’s side grew into it gradually. With the veteran Jamie Mulgrew pulling the strings, they began to pass and probe, though their greatest return came at set pieces where a City defence that has been so solid this season looked shaky.
Half-a-dozen balls into the box created chaos or at least some cause for concern and Smyth was left banging the turf in frustration 22 minutes in after he headed a corner, flicked on at the near post, over the crossbar from inside the six-yard box.
The second quarter aped the first with Cork claiming more possession and more attempts on goal — none of them disturbing for Carroll — but with Linfield creating the best opening, when Waterworth was judged offside.
It was a positive note on which to end the half for the home side, given their lack of match sharpness and Caulfield seemed to recognise the need for more thrust from Cork by replacing Sheppard with Danny Morrissey, who was posted much closer to goal.
It didn’t have much effect in a third quarter that was utterly forgettable, with both sides struggling and Linfield suffering the not-inconsiderable blow of Mulgrew’s departure 10 minutes into it with an injury picked up just after the restart.
City finally claimed the first goal with just under half an hour left.
Maguire created and finished it, from the spot, playing a through ball a little too far into the Linfield area for Stephen Dooley to chase and then fall — rather expertly, it must be said — under the challenge of midfielder Stephen Lowry.
City pressed for the second goal that would, if not put the tie to bed, then at least tuck it in nice and tight under the covers against a tiring Linfield side and one which struggled to create anything of note after the interval.
Kenny Browne had a header cleared off the Linfield line by Lowry with 19 minutes to go, but the second goal never materialised, despite further efforts from substitute Mark O’Sullivan, Kevin O’Connor and Maguire.
It would be a shock if the job isn’t finished on Leeside.
R Carroll; R Glendinning, M Haughey, M Stafford, N Quinn; K Millar, S Lowry, J Mulgrew, R Gaynor; A Waterworth, P Smyth.
D Kee for Mulgrew (55); A Burns for Smyth (72); R Clarke for Millar.
M McNulty; S Beattie, A Bennett, K Browne, K O’Connor; G Bolger, G Morrissey; K Sheppard, G Buckley, S Dooley; S Maguire.
D Morrissey for Sheppard (HT); M O’Sullivan for Buckley (60); C Healy for Maguire (89).
B Vertenten (Belgium).
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