After yet another disappointing at Windsor Park against Portadown, Linfield will have been glad to be on the road. If they could choose any ground to visit, it would be The Oval. To say that Linfield have a good record there in recent years is a bit of an understatement.
Form in recent years would suggest this good run would continue. In the past two years, Linfield have gifted Glentoran a point at Windsor Park and then won the remaining fixtures. Glentoran’s league position suggested that a fourth League meeting between the sides at Windsor Park in April won’t be happening.
As supporters entered The Oval, there was one name that the away fans were talking about, Alex Moore. Who? I hear you say. Don’t worry, I asked the same thing. He’s an 18 year old goalkeeper making his debut after (i presume) injuries to Roy Carroll and Gareth Deane rather than a pie related disciplinary issue at the club.
To add to the goalkeeper crisis, the unofficial third choice goalkeeper Mark Haughey was also injured. Coincidentally, his penalty heroics against Glenavon was a year ago this weekend.
Haughey missed the Portadown match and was replaced by Chris Casement. Casement was then demoted to the bench and replaced by Reece Glendenning, who scored a hat-trick against Portadown in a reserve game last week. I don’t that that’s what he was in the team for today, but it would be nice if he did that.
Moore played in the Steel and Sons Cup Final over Christmas, so he had some sort of big match experience going into this. It was telling that Jamie Mulgrew won possession in his defensive third in the first minute and headed back to him, just to give him an early touch of the ball.
He would get further touches of the ball in the early minutes by having to keep out a speculative shot from the byline and having to come out and catch a low cross in the six yard box. Jimmy Callacher probably would have cleared, Moore was not taking any chances and dealing with the danger himself.
Linfield were slow getting into the game, but their first moment of quality almost brought a goal when Niall Quinn got clear and his low cross evaded both Cameron Stewart and Andrew Waterworth.
Paul Smyth wasn’t really getting into the game. For some reason, Linfield attack stands rather than sides. For example, left in the first-half and then right in the second, or the other way around. All the attacking in the first-half by Linfield was down the left hand side, meaning Smyth wasn’t involved as much.
Glentoran’s tactic was to stop Linfield by stopping Jamie Mulgrew, usually by illegal methods as he extended his lead at the top of the Most Fouled Irish League Player In History Chart.
They weren’t even honest fouls, they were cynical fouls with no intention of getting the ball, just to stop the man. While the referee’s yellow card stayed in his pocket, it only encouraged Glentoran more.
It was clear that, like in the recent Irish Cup tie, Glentoran were set up to try and snatch a 1-0 lead in the first-half and then hold onto it in the second-half.
That 1-0 lead that Glentoran desired almost came a counter attack when Steven Gordon knocked the ball past Moore, only to see Reece Glendenning get back in time to clear it on the goal-line.
Stephen Lowry fired agonisingly wide from the edge of the box while Linfield should have had a penalty for a handball from a Niall Quinn cross. A football match had finally broken out, 40 minutes late.
Despite ending the first-half well, Linfield needed to play so much better to get the points in the second-half.
Linfield were much better at the start of the second-half, not that it was hard. Paul Smyth was getting more and more involved in the game. The correlation between getting Paul Smyth on the ball and Linfield looking more likely to score is a very simple one to understand.
It looked like Jimmy Callacher would be the man to give Linfield that lead when his header came back to him, perfectly set up, but he volleyed the ball over.
Paul Smyth then fired just wide as Linfield’s pressure began to increase.
Ironically, Linfield got the goal just when the pressure had died down, a header from a free-kick falling perfectly to Andrew Waterworth to just about finish from a few yards out. As long as Linfield did nothing stupid in the final half hour, it should be enough to secure the points.
Sean Ward came on as a sub for Stephen Lowry, and he had a header go wide from just inside the box as Linfield looked for the second goal that would secure the points.
Aaron Burns made a welcome return off the bench after a month out through injury, while Ross Gayno came on for Paul Smyth. It seemed that Niall Quinn would be the obvious player to go off for Gaynor to come one.
Quinn did go off. Not subbed or sent-off, but injured. The end result being that Linfield would play the final minutes with only ten men. They started to get defensive, inviting unnecessary onto themselves.
The best that Glentoran could offer were a couple of speculative shots in the same attack, one which was blocked by their own player, and the other saved by Moore.
Thankfully, Linfield held onto the ball and made sure Glentoran couldn’t hurt them, seeing out the game to win 1-0.
It was Linfield’s ninth successive win at The Oval, eight in the League and ten if you include the “home” match against Crusaders in April 2015. Thirteen unbeaten against Glentoran there and fourteen if you consider the 2012/2013 County Antrim Shield Final to be a draw. Isn’t it great to be arguing about winning/unbeaten run stats?
Considering our poor results at Windsor Park in recent months, perhaps we should play all future home games at The Oval. (Clarification. Just a joke. For the avoidance of doubt, just a joke)
The only two teams to win a League match at Windsor Park this season, Cliftonville and Coleraine played out a 0-0 draw at Solitude, meaning Linfield extend their lead over 3rd place Cliftonville to eleven points.
I would expect that even if our title challenge fails, at least Linfield won’t be having to participate in the ridiculous UEFA Cup Play-Offs.
Even if Linfield lose to twice to Cliftonville in the run-in (We won’t. I know we’ve lost twice to Cliftonville this season, but we won’t lose the next two to them. They’ve downed tools since their Irish Cup exit and are preparing for Play-Off games in May, just like last season) it will be hard to see Cliftonville overturn those remaining five points considering they have only won two (five draws and three defeats, if you care) of their last ten games. Two out of twelve if you include friendlies against Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers.
It also maintains Coleraine’s unbeaten run, albeit ending a run of eight successive wins. The only reason I want Coleraine to maintain their good run of form is that they play Crusaders at the end of March.
Just Crusaders luck to avoid playing Coleraine while they are on a winning run of form. Even bigger luck that their postponed (due to Ballymena’s involvement in the League Cup Final) taking place in the midweek before that game.
Talking of Cliftonville, they will be Linfield’s next League opponents, on Monday 13th March, a game you can see live on Sky Sports. The problem is, it’s up against Chelsea v Manchester United on BBC One at the same time.
It’s great that games are on Sky Sports but I don’t think they’ve picked a good one. Unless Glentoran are visiting on Boxing Day, any game at Windsor Park will be showcasing empty seats in the North Stand due to the camera position.
It would have been better if Sky had waited until the live FA Cup games were picked by BT and BBC before picking an Irish League game that weekend to show.
The bad news for Linfield is that Cliftonville had two players, Paul Finnegan and Jamie McGovern, sent-off. For some reason, Linfield always play badly against teams who have multiple players missing through suspension and/or injury
As I type, the teatime kick-off between Portadown and Crusaders finished 1-1. I know, i’m as shocked as you are, that a team who got a heroic result against Linfield followed-up with a result that helps Linfield.
The gap at the top of the table is now back to seven points, as you were from last Friday teatime but two games further on. When you and a rival both drop points in a title race, you’re caught between agonising over points thrown away and relieved at the situation not being worse.
Linfield get a break from League action next weekend, but it’s not a weekend off, as they travel to Seaview in the Irish Cup. It’s a game that Linfield will have no fear in due to the head to heads this season.
If we play like we do in the previous four meetings this season, we’ll be fine.
Linfield have written the book on how to play against Crusaders this season. Other clubs are more than welcome to have a read. Hopefully, there’ll be another chapter added next weekend.