Linfield began 2016 against the same opponents they opened 2015, but this time, the circumstances were different, and i’m not referring to the change in venues.
This time last year, Linfield kicked-off four points clear, lost, lost momentum and their season fell apart. Today, they kicked-off nine points behind their opponents.
The hope was, that they would win, and kick on in the second-half of the season. If only it was that simple.
A win would have seen Linfield go to within six points of Crusaders, albeit with Crusaders having a game in hand. It would be a small hope of winning the title. It’s better than the no hope they had on Christmas morning
Both teams exchanged blows in the early moments, Paul Heatley firing at Ross Glendinning while Paul Smyth was causing worry for Crusaders defenders that they were having to foul him in order to stop him. Linfield had two set pieces they couldn’t take advantage of.
Linfield were getting a lot of joy attacking Crusaders, you could see the fear in the defence at players running at them. Crusaders players were qually shellshocked to see opponents tackling them. Linfield were up for it, and were asking the question of Crusaders.
Millar, Waterworth and Smyth were all worrying Crusaders with their pace but not getting a clear shot on goal. That was until the 28th minute when Andrew Waterworth got in behind Crusaders defence and cut in from a wide position and shot, but it was saved by the keeper.
Against Portadown in November, a similar incident happened. Portadown cleared the danger and within a minute, had went up to the other end of the pitch and score. That was indicative of what was happening in November.
Not today, when everything seems to be falling Linfield’s way. The ball fell straight back to Waterworth, who made no mistake second time around.
What happened next, was pure comedy gold, as during the celebrations, the corner flag was broken by an over exuberant Linfield player. On the TV footage, it looks like Matthew Clarke.
No doubt Crusaders will be demanding he be banned, the most shocking violence seen in an Irish League game since Jamie Mulgrew bit Colin Coates in 2011, as proved by a grainy screenshot produced by Crusaders fans.
This resulted in a five minute stoppage, as ground staff tried to fix the flag, and then try to find a replacement.
The stoppage didn’t affect Linfield too much, though Crusaders had the next shot on goal, when a Jordan Forsythe free-kick was easily saved by Glendinning.
It wasn’t long before the next stoppage, when the linesman at the South Stand was the meat in a sandwich when Craig McLean and Kirk Millar went in for a challenge. He had to be replaced by the 4th official.
There were no other attacks in a half, which eventually finished in the 53rd minute.
Half-time saw three substitutions. Magowan and Clarke for Crusaders (neither player could complain) and Haughey for Linfield (presumably injured) replaced by David Kee.
Crusaders came out for the second-half strongly, but Linfield withstood the pressure.
Not only did Linfield withstand the pressure, they doubled their lead, when a corner was bundled home by Jimmy Callacher.
The corner came about when Smyth and Millar got in behind Crusaders defence but couldn’t make the most of it.
Linfield got a lot of joy down their right, with Criag McLean misjudging the bounce of the ball on two occasions which sent Linfield clear.
He wasn’t the only one. Everytime a Crusaders player had the ball in a defensive position they looked nervous and panicky, more often than not giving possession away in a dangerous position or conceding a throw-in.
Soon after, Smyth got in behind Crusaders defence and shot wide when he perhaps should have scored.
Having not looked like scoring at 0-0 and 0-1, suddenly, Crusaders were having chances. Everytime, Glendinning was on hand to make a save.
Neither defence was on top, the game went from end to end with both sides chasing the goal that would either kill the game or start a comeback.
Linfield brought on Bates and Frazer in the final stages, both of them having chances to score on the break.
It was a performance and result against Crusaders that had been missing for a long time. If only we had done that in early November, the league table could be a lot different today,
But that’s gone now, it’s all about looking forward.
But looking back at the Christmas/New Year period, it has been very productive for Linfield. Three wins out of three, and a performance in each one.
Other results went our way too, gaining ground on Crusaders (five points), Cliftonville (seven points), Coleraine (three points) and Glenavon (two points)
Cliftonville’s draw at home to Warrenpoint today allowed Linfield to overtake them into 2nd, albeit Cliftonville have a game in hand.
It’s just a pity that the next league game isn’t for another two weeks.
Until then, it’s cup action, with two games (Irish Cup and County Antrim Shield) against Ballymena coming up.
The three remaining league games this month are against Dungannon, Ballymena and Carrick. Without sounding arrogant, that is a generous run of games.
Looking at other games in January, Glenavon face Cliftonville, and Crusaders face Glentoran and Portadown and Glenavon in early February, while Cliftonville also face Portadown.
Cliftonville’s trip to The Oval in February, where they always struggle, has been postponed due to the League Cup Final with no new date confirmed yet.
That’s a lot of potential points dropped by our rivals. Hopefully.
The important thing is, that Linfield help themselves by getting points on the board.
But until then, progress in the Irish Cup and getting the County Antrim Shield in the cabinet is top of the agenda.
That would be a rather good start to 2016.