It’s fair to say that David Healy’s honeymoon period as Linfield manager came to an abrupt end today with a 1-1 draw at home to Carrick Rangers.
The result saw Crusaders go level with Linfield at the top of the table, both sides level on points and goal difference, only seperated by six goals in Linfield’s favour. Coleraine and Cliftonville drew and missed the opportunity to close the gap at the top of the table, as Linfield continued their rotten form in October (one win in five), which still has two more games to play.
Linfield had some early attacks, but it was always a case of playing the wrong ball. At times they were trying to walk the ball into the net, they just needed someone to take the initiative and go for goal.
Carrick had their share of attacks as well, but nothing that worried Linfield. They didn’t manage a shot on goal as Linfield were able to snuff out Carrick’s quick attacks.
Throughout the first-half, Linfield were slow with their attacking. It was easy for Carrick to defend against. There wasn’t a moment when you thought a goal for Linfield was imminent. Linfield didn’t help themselves with their passing.
Aaron Burns had Linfield’s first real chance of the game when his header from a Guy Bates cross was saved by Brian Neeson.
Most of Linfield’s play came through Jamie Mulgrew running with the ball from midfield. Unfortunately, he didn’t play many defence splitting balls. That was because he was usually cynicaly hacked down before he got the chance.
The cycnical foul to yellow card ratio was ridiculously low.
The one time Mulgrew got a clear run, he set up Andrew Waterworth in the penalty area, who was fouled for a penalty.
Aaron Burns stepped up, and his shot was saved by Brian Neeson, out for a corner.
The miss seemed to briefly gee up Linfield, as they had a flurry of corners soon after. That was it though, a flurry of corners.
The teams went in at half-time 0-0, just like at Taylor’s Avenue in August. In that game, Linfield were unlucky to go in 0-0, due to a combination of bad luck, bad finishing and good goalkeeping. They could say no such thing today.
Like last week, this was a game that Linfield needed to go 1-0 up, take control and kill the game. Getting 1-0 up was the problem, especially when glorious chances such as penalty kicks were being wasted.
On 56 minutes, David Healy had seen enough, and replaced Kirk Millar with Ivan Sproule in an attempt to inject some pace, literally and metaphorically into Linfield’s attack.
Stephen Lowry had Linfield’s first attacking moment in the second-half, when he fired wide from a tight angle when he perhaps should have crossed.
Like for most of the first-half, Linfield were restricted to speculative long-range shots, none of which troubled Neeson, or even looked like troubling him.
It was Carrick who had the first goalbound shot of the second-half, when a poor punch out by Ross Glendinning was returned towards the empty goal by Joe McNeill, but his shot hit the top of the crossbar. Most in Windsor Parj thought it was going in.
Adam Salley came on for Guy Bates. Bates is usuually the man who makes things happen for Linfield. Apart from setting up Aaron Burns for a header that was saved, it didn’t really happen for Bates today.
Within minutes, the opening goal came, but it was for Carrick, who were awarded a penalty when Miguel Chines was fouled in the penalty area when the ball bounced in his direction.
After surviving penalties in recent weeks against Cliftonville and Warrenpoint, to hope Linfield would get away with it for a third time was asking too much, as Chines fired home to give Carrick the lead.
Carrick almost went 2-0 in front when Conor McCloskey fired wide after a fumble by Glendinning. It was an uncomfortable afternoon for Glendinning, who made a number of fumbles that presented goalscoring opportunities to Carrick.
Carrick had men behind the ball to defend their lead. Everytime the ball bounced, it bounced to a Carrick player, such was their positional play. Linfield didn’t help themselves with no movement off the ball. It was all too easy for Carrick.
On 84 minutes, Linfield got an equaliser when Aaron Burns swam against the tide of the performance by running in behind Carrick’s defence, and a defence splitting pass from Stephen Lowry left him through on goal with, and all he had to do was slip it past the keeper.
There was still six minutes for Linfield to push on and get a winner.
It was Carrick who had the next chance, when Glendinning fumbled a free-kick which was diverted goalwards, but Sean Ward was in position on the line to block the ball and deny Carrick a certain goal.
Linfield thought they had won it in injury time when Adam Salley attempted a Mark Hughes style volley in the air, but it just went over. If it did go in, it would have been a winning goal out of character with the performance.
As the clock ticked down, Carrick weren’t slow in slowing the game down, kicking the ball away at dead ball situations and taking an age.
Neeson was booked for moving the ball to the other side of the quadrant to take a goal kick in injury time. The referee wasted even more time running over to booked him. Carrick really paid for that when the referee added a whopping eleven seconds at the end of injury time for this stoppage.
This result meant that Linfield were now joint top with Crusaders on goals scored, Cliftonville and Coleraine a further three and four points behind. This is potentially the closest title race in years.
Maybe in April, this could be one point gained rather than two lost.
This current run of form mirrored last October, which was recovered with a winning run in November and December. The less said of January and February, the better.
Up next, is Cliftonville in the County Antrim Shield. It’s a competition i’m not that bothered about, but recent results make this a bigger game than it should be, as one win in six and out of two cup competitions is not a good narrative to have going into a busy November and December period.