|Venue: Skonto Stadium, Riga Date: Thursday August 18 To start up:6:00 p.m. BST|
|Cover: Live text commentary and match report on the BBC Sport website|
Linfield captain Jamie Mulgrew believes reaching the Europa League group stage would be a “life-changing” experience for players and coaching staff.
The Blues are absent from Latvia’s RFS on Thursday night in the first of a home and away play-off as they aim to become the first Irish Premiership side to reach the group stage of European competition.
It would bring huge financial rewards to the club and, as Mulgrew explained, would be a “dream” for the players.
“It would be amazing, really,” said the 36-year-old midfielder when asked to rate how important it would be to pass this play-off and advance to the group stage.
“Obviously we got closer in the Qarabag game [in 2019, when they lost narrowly in a Europa League play-off] and certainly took a liking to it.
“It’s a dream, really. After being at Linfield for so long, to play for the club in the group stage of European competition would be incredible.
“Financially for the club it would obviously be fantastic, we could eventually take it to the next level, which the club is striving to do. And, for the players, the experience and the memories we would get would be great.”
He added: “It would be life changing for all of us in the sense of traveling to these different countries and playing against these high quality teams.
“We will then have to manage to play our league games on a Sunday, so that is life changing. But is it worth it? Of course it is. Playing more games on a Sunday would be good. When you are successful, that’s what happens, these things happen and you have to adapt.”
Europa Conference League ‘always Linfield’s target’
As well as the life-changing impact of qualification on Linfield’s squad, the financial rewards for playing in the group stage would also be a hugely significant boost for Northern Ireland’s most successful club.
A place in the group stage would net the Irish Premiership champions around €2.9m, with €500,000 per win and €166,000 per draw offered in each of the six games David Healy’s side would play if she qualified.
After starting their European campaign by beating TNS in the Champions League first qualifying round in July, a heavy two-leg defeat by Bodo/Glimt saw Linfield stumble in the Europa League when a loss to FC Zurich left them led to this Europa Conference League game. -stopped.
“The Europa Conference League has always been our target and if we’re honest it’s the most realistic opportunity for us,” continued Mulgrew, whose side began their defense of their Irish Premiership title with a 4-0 win over Portadown on Sunday.
“We knew what could happen in other games and we wanted to give a good account of ourselves, but now we have this opportunity and it’s up to us whether we take it or not.”
“I want to achieve everything that is on the table”
Linfield’s side left Belfast for Riga on Wednesday and Mulgrew says they will be well-prepared to face a side that won the Latvian top-flight title last season and are currently third in the table, eight points from the top.
He also acknowledged that the Blues could have faced tougher opposition in the play-offs and that, while fully aware of the need to be cautious, both teams will see this draw as a great opportunity to progress.
“They’re a great physical team who have had positive results in Europe, like us, and I’m sure they’ll like their chances,” said Mulgrew, who agrees with his coach that being absent in the first leg is positive.
“I guess you could maybe classify it as similar to the TNS draw where it was a real opportunity for both clubs to go through.
“I’m not saying we’re favorites or anything like that, but we could have had teams like Poznan or Cluj, teams that regularly reach the group stages and are in the same bracket as Zurich or Bodo.
“We are always very well prepared by the coach and the coaching staff regarding the opposition in Europe, but sometimes you are a bit cautious because you don’t really know what to expect.
“We watched videos of them and analyzed their strengths and weaknesses, and where we can hurt them.
“We just have to have confidence in the team that we have and that we can go out and chase them, and really see where they are at. They have 24 games in their season, so they are fit and will be in great shape.’ I am on.”
Having joined Linfield in 2005, Mulgrew has won every domestic trophy possible and played for Northern Ireland – but this play-off offers him the opportunity to do something he has never done before.
“I may have accomplished a lot, but it hasn’t made me any less hungry. I want to accomplish everything on the table and I want to win. Thursday gives me and everyone a chance to achieve a first by reaching a group stage.”