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Stafford braced for biggest challenge of his career

Mark Stafford prepares to face Celtic this evening

MARK Stafford admitted that facing the Celtic attack will be the biggest challenge of his long playing career.

This evening the Trillick native and his Linfield team-mates host the Old Firm giants in a second round first leg Champions League Qualifier at the National Stadium, Belfast

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Due to security concerns the Glasgow giants declined their allocation of tickets although thousands of Linfield supporters are expected to attend one of the biggest soccer matches hosted in the North in recent times.

It is predicted the game will boost the Blues’ coffers by £1million as David Healy’s Premiership champions bid to cause what would arguably be one of the greatest shocks in European football.

The Scottish champions hammered Shamrock Rovers 9-0 in a warm-up game at the weekend at the same time that Linfield went down 4-1 at home to Hearts.

Those results underlined the magnitude of the task facing Healy and his players but no-nonsense defender Stafford is looking forward to facing one of the best strike forces in European football.

“It’s doesn’t get much bigger than that from a defender’s point of view,” he said.

“To be facing players like of Dembele, Griffiths and others is going to be unbelievable for me.

“We all remember the sheer quality of the two free kicks Lee Griffiths scored against England not that long ago. The calibre of opposing player is going to be a lot different to what I’m used to.

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“They are a quality side and not just an ordinary Celtic side at that. They did after all go through last season unbeaten and in the process won three trophies.

“They are a very good Celtic side, Brendan Rodgers has done an unbelieveable job.

“It’s not just a friendly game. Celtic want to progress and do well in the Champions League. A competitive game against such a big club is going to be an experience of lifetime but a challenge I’m looking forward to.”

To set up the showdown with Celtic, Linfield defeated San Marino outfit La Fiorita 1-0 over two legs in the opening round.

A late goal by new signing and former Glentoran favorite Jordan Stewart gave the Blues a slender lead which Healy’s charges successfully defended in San Marino.

On the face of it it looked like a bit of struggle for the Gibson Cup holders but Stafford felt he and his team-mates had done a thoroughy professional job.

“La Fiorita were a very good side, technically good,” he continued. “They put us under quite a bit of pressure but we managed that well. I thought it was a top quality performance.

“Celtic, well that’s a different matter entirely. We have a gameplan and we are going to try and stick to it the best we can, be competitive and see where that takes us.

“You can’t go onto the pitch beaten before you have even started. You have to believe in yourself, your team-mates to give yourself the best possible chance. Of course we are facing a team of full-time professionals, obviously playing at the height of their game. But down the years sport has thrown up many a shock.”

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