Linfield made the trip to Seaview for the first of a double header of games against the other sides in last season’s top three, looking to make up for lost ground following Wednesday night’s draw against Coleraine.
Seaview was the ground last season where Linfield’s winning start was derailed and then in April, their title hopes were all but killed off.
They were hoping not to make it a hat-trick of Seaview disasters. Defeat wouldn’t have been fatal to their 2016-2017 title ambitions, but a five point gap in the middle of August would have been a big gap to make up already. On the flip side, Linfield knew that a win would see them, at worst, joint top of the league.
It wasn’t just two points that were costly for Linfield, with Jamie Mulgrew and Ross Gaynor missing today through injuries suffered on Wednesday night.
For the first time in a long time, Linfield have options in their squad, with Sean Ward and Josh Carson coming in, while Aaron Burns replaced Paul Smyth.
It was a game where defences were on top. Linfield were warned that they couldn’t afford to make a slip when Crusaders were presented with a free chance from a free-kick, which they couldn’t take.
Likewise, Linfield weren’t getting a lot of joy, being at their most dangerous from set pieces, but like Crusaders, not having a clear goalscoring opprtunity.
Talking of goalscoring opportunities, Stephen Lowry hauled back Paul Heatley as he ran forward in first-half stoppage time. It was a classic case of “Taking one for the team” as he picked up a yellow card. It would end up to be a costly card for Lowry later in the day.
As Heatley lay on the ground, Crusaders players surrounded the referee. It was a common theme any time a Linfield player committed a foul. Thankfully, Linfield didn’t play Crusaders game.
It’s not as if Raymond Crangle would have needed any encouragement to book a Linfield player.
To be fair, he wasn’t as bad as usual. By his standards. His pre-match warm-up saw him lap up the boos from Linfield fans and cheers from Crusaders fans as he jogged past them.
It appeared that Panto Season had arrived in Belfast four months early.
Like any great entertainer, he saved one of his Greatest Hits for the end, by booking Andrew Waterworth for handball after he landed on the ball after being fouled in injury time.
From the resulting free-kick for Lowry’s foul, Linfield switched off, allowing Crusaders to get space after the free-kick was taken quickly, and then allowing Paul Heatley a free header. Thankfully, it was straight at Roy Carroll.
Quick free-kicks from Crusaders were a recurring theme during the game, catching Linfield out, but Linfield had enough shape about them not to be punished for it.
In the opening minutes of the second-half, Linfield were reduced to ten men when Stephen Lowry got a second yellow card.
Ironically, just seconds before, Kirk Millar had lost possession and was chasing it back. I was mumbling to myself at Millar not to make a tackle and get sent-off (He was also on a yellow card), only for Lowry to jump in and do likewise.
On the touchline and with the Crusaders player going nowhere, it was a stupid tackle to make, especially for a player on a yellow card.
Despite being down to ten, it was far from game over for Linfield. In the past year they have faced Cliftonville, Ballymena and Glenavon with ten men and been undefeated in those games. In two of them, they turned a defeat into a draw and a draw into a win.
In terms of personnel, Linfield didn’t need to turn to their bench, with Aaron Burns slotting back into midfield.
Sammy Clingan, on the bench, would have to wait a little longer for his competitive Linfield debut.
Despite being a man light, Linfield had their best attacking moments after the red card. Mark Haughey headed over from a free-kick when he should have scored, while Kirk Millar’s cross was almost headed into his own goal by a Crusaders defender.
David Cushley had Crusaders best chance, but his shot was saved by Roy Carroll.
It wasn’t just on the ground that Carroll was commanding, as he frustrated Crusaders tactics of lumping the ball into the box.
Crusaders could cross the ball all day, Carroll would have caught the ball all day.
The game was crying out for Paul Smyth to be introduced from the bench, which he was, for Josh Carson, giving Crusaders problems. He flicked a header wide from a free-kick.
It was the sort of game that had 0-0 written all over it as both teams struggled to make the breakthrough.
As the final minutes played out, both teams went for goal, but without committing too many players forward.
This was backed up by Crusaders passing it about in their own half in the final seconds of the game
It was neither a good result or a bad result, Both teams will not be unhappy with a point while feeling that they could have won all three.
Up next for Linfield, is a home match against Glenavon, one of three clubs (the others being Crusaders and Ards) two points above Linfield at the top.
Glenavon have started the season in goalscoring form, scoring 10 to Linfield’s 3 in the opening 3 games. On the other side, they are prone to conceding, shipping 5 goals in those 3 games, the same as Ballinamallard who have lost all three games and sit 11th.
Glenavon’s form suggests there will be goals. A simple 1-0 for Linfield will do me.