2015 began for Linfield with a trip to Seaview. It represented an opportunity for Linfield to extend their lead at the top of the table to at least six points, and gain a decisive lead in the title race for the first time.
Linfield started well in the opening minutes without having a clear shot on goal. You got the feeling Linfield needed a goal during this period. And so it proved.
Crusaders got a cheap free-kick in a wide position. There was no need to foul a player that was going nowhere. When the cross came in, Jordan Owens was unmarked. It was asking for trouble.
It was the third successive game that Linfield went behind. It’s a bad habit to get into.
From there, Linfield reverted to bad habits, playing the ball long. Playing Crusaders game. For all Crusaders possession, there wasn’t a moment when they looked like they were going to make it 2-0.
As the second-half started, before you could say that Linfield needed a good start, they were 2-0 down. It was a poor goal to concede – a long ball down the wing and a cross to an unmarked forward.
Instantly, Ross Clarke, returning from injury, was brought on off the bench. The 4-3-1-2 used today (possibly forced by injuries/suspensions) wasn’t working.
Crusaders had chances to make it 3-0, before an Andrew Waterworth shot took a deflection before hitting the back of the net. The game had changed in an instant.
When Linfield are playing away from home, attacking their fans, you always feel confident of the end result.
There were moments of hope – Niall Quinn had a free-kick go just wide soon after Waterworth’s goal, and Sammy Morrow had a chance in the penalty area that he should have done better with, firing wide when it looked like he would score.
Linfield had to be wary of not going 3-1 down, Crusaders almost doing that when a speculative Paul Heatley effort was clawed off the line by Glendinning.
Towards the end, Linfield had a succession of corners where Crusaders looked shaky. They just could get the ball to bounce to a Linfield player when it mattered.
Crusaders fans celebrated, before Linfield fans began chanting “we are top of the league”, a gentle reminder to their opponents.
Not much time to reflect on today’s game, next up is Coleraine in just under 48 hours. It’s probably best to get back on the wheel as soon as possible, especially with the league taking a break for cup games the following Saturday.
Obviously, today’s result is disappointing, but it is important to remember, that Linfield are still top of the league.
Linfield have responded well to disappointment this season. Defeat at Portadown was followed by a comeback win at The Oval. Defeat at home to Glenavon was followed by ten points from twelve to take Linfield top. Defeats to Cliftonville and Crusaders were followed by seven wins and a draw in eight games.
Hopefully, today was merely the end of an unbeaten run, rather than the start of a winless run.
Looking ahead, the next four scheduled league games are Coleraine, Ballinamallard, Ballymena and Dungannon. Without sounding arrogant, that’s a run of games that any side with ambitions of winning the league should be claiming twelve points from.
In that run of games, Crusaders will face Portadown and Glentoran. Hopefully, there’ll be some dropped points in either or both those games.
That match against Portadown takes place on the weekend of the League Cup Final, when Linfield’s match against Cliftonville is postponed. I’d be pushing for that match to be played as soon as possible, ideally the midweek afterwards.
Regardless, the key for Linfield is to keep winning. Let Crusaders worry about us, rather than the other way around.
Despite the result, performance and poor goals conceded, there were two positives – the return of Ross Clarke and Peter Thompson.
Clarke came on as a substitute when Crusaders went 2-0 up while Thompson was an unused sub. Personally, I would have brought Thompson on for Morrow in the closing stages today.
Having a guess, i’d say Clarke/Sproule/Thompson/Richards will come in on Saturday (assuming Aaron Burns is still injured) for Clucas/Brown/Morrow/Haughey (injury) on Saturday.
Not the best of starts to 2015. Hopefully, the year will start to get better.