Linfield began 2016 the way they began the year, with a clash against Crusaders.
Unfortunately, they finished the year as they started, trying to make up a massive deficit, only the 7 points today compared with 9 (with a game more played) on New Year’s Day.
Despite dropping points on Boxing Day, Linfield knew that if they could get the win, the gap would be one point less than when they kicked-off on Boxing Day, even though the title race would be out of their hands. Defeat was not an option for Linfield, as the gap would increase to ten points, double figures, making the Irish Cup tie against Glentoran next weekend make or break for the season.
Linfield could take heart from the previous meetings this season, both 0-0 draws, but games where Linfield were the better team.
The other ten teams in the league might believe Crusaders are unbeatable, Linfield certainly did not.
It was Crusaders who had the first chance of the game when Michael Carvill (yes, really) headed against the bar after Linfield fell asleep at a set piece, allowing a short corner to go into the box unchallenged.
That was the only moment of worry in the first-half for Linfield, as they began to dominate the game, applying pressure on the Crusaders goal.
Jonny Frazer, rewarded with a first team appearance after helping the Swifts win the Steel and Sons Cup, was linking up with a recalled Aaron Burns, providing support to the no longer isolated Andrew Waterworth. Crusaders were struggling to handle them.
Despite that, it was Mark Haughey who looked like giving Linfield the lead, but his goalward shot was blocked in the six yard box. From where I was, it looked like it was going wide. TV replays suggested it was going in. The Crusaders defender wasn’t taking any chances.
As the half neared it’s end, it looked like Linfield weren’t going to get their reward. That was, until Aaron Burns flicked the ball over a defender and tried to get some space in the penalty area.
From where I was, it looked like he was going to miss. Shows what I know, he just set himself up and fired the ball past Sean O’Neill to put Linfield 1-0 up.
It got even better for Linfield a few minutes later when Andrew Waterworth chased a through ball which Michael Gault looked set to shepherd the ball back to the goalkeeper.
Thankfully for Linfield, Gault dithered even more than the time Warren Feeney offered him a contract, giving Waterworth enough of an opportunity to get the slight touch of the ball he needed to put the ball in the net to put Linfield 2-0 up.
The scoreline was exactly what Linfield deserved.
Naturally, there was the fear of a Crusaders backlash. It didn’t come. In fact, Linfield were the side most likely to score.
Aaron Burns lobbed the keeper but the effort was headed off hte line, while Andrew Waterworth touched the ball goalwards past an onrushing goalkeeper, not quite as successfully as he did in the first-half.
On the hour, a melee by the touchline resulted in a red card for Jamie Mulgrew. I was at the other side so didn’t get a great view.
From what I could see, Mulgrew had hands raised. No complaints about his red card, but real complaint was why he was the only player leaving the pitch, as there were several Crusaders players around him with hands raised.
It didn’t quite gee up the Crusaders fans. It was the Linfield fans who were noisiest as a result of this, urging their team to get the points. They knew the players needed them to help them see out the final half hour.
Unfortunately, what the incident also meant, was there would be five to six minutes of injury time.
There wasn’t an immediate reshuffle needed by Linfield, as Aaron Burns slotted back into midfield to fill in the gap left by Mulgrew.
Within a few minutes, Chris Casement was brought on for Jonny Frazer to play in right midfield, to give some defensive cover in that position.
Despite the one man advantage, Crusaders were restricted to speculative shots and crosses into the box. They only needed to get lucky with one to get back into the game. That came when Jordan Owens headed home to make it 2-1.
The speculative shots and crosses continued but Linfield held firm. Despite the one goal lead, Linfield knew they just had to keep their heads and they would get the three points, as there was never a moment when you felt a Crusaders equaliser was imminent.
David Healy, sent to his stands in the same incident Jamie Mulgrew was sent-off, turned to the bench, bringing on Cameron Stewart, belatedly in my opinion, for Andrew Waterworth, who was feeling the effects of leading the forward line as a solo effort since the red card.
Despite the disappointment of last Monday, this result means that Linfield are a point closer to the top of the table than they were this time last week. It really should be a two point gap. There’s no point crying about Boxing Day, it’s gone, the next game is the one that matters.
Not only is the gap at the top reduced, the lead over third place Cliftonville is now four points. While we should be looking ahead of us, it’s nice not to have to immediately look behind us.
That next game comes around very quickly, a Tuesday night game at home to Coleraine, on a night with a full fixture list.
That, like every game between now and April, is a must-win game, as this result cannot be allowed to be undone if Linfield are to have any serious ambitions of winning the title.
Crusaders, are away to Ards. That’s a game I would expect them to win. Though, I would have said the same about Ballymena today. Ards are unbeaten in three games under new manager Colin Nixon. Hopefully, he can continue with his unbeaten start as a amanager.
After that, is the Irish Cup trip to The Oval before concentrating on the league again with a trip to Mourneview Park.
The big games keep coming for Linfield, but the standard has been set. If we can repeat today’s performance, especially the first-half performance, 2017 could be a very successful year for Linfield.