This winner of this match was never going to automatically go on a title charge, and the loser was never going to be out of the title race. However, it is Crusaders who are trying to take that positive spin, as Linfield put in a display that was more exciting than a branch of Primark opening.
At one point this season, Linfield’s points lead over Crusaders was in double figures, but dropped points over the past eight weeks had seen that reduced to five, giving Crusaders a sniff at the title when Linfield should have been out of sight. A win here, and they would be two points behind Linfield and right into the mix.
Linfield were straight on the attack, winning a corner inside the first minute that Josh Robinson was unable to get on the end of an repeat his feat of scoring in the first minute of this fixture, as he did last season.
Meanwhile, Chris Casement had a free-kick go over while Kirk Millar and Jordan Stewart were unable to get on the end of a Jamie Mulgrew cross.
Eventually, Linfield took the lead when Stephen Fallon played in Joel Cooper in acres of space. Crusaders defenders backed off him, which only invited him to shoot, doing so, and putting Linfield 1-0 up via a deflection.
Just like on Crusaders last visit to Windsor Park, Linfield got an early goal and were on top. That day, they couldn’t get a second goal and let Crusaders away with it. Not today, they were thirsty for more.
A few minutes later, another attack saw Jordan Stewart run at Crusaders defence. He had options left and right but decided to shoot, his effort deflecting out for a corner.
That resulting corner saw Jimmy Callacher head home to put Linfield 2-0 up, just as he did against Crusaders at Windsor Park on New Year’s Day 2016.
The uncertainty in Crusaders defence not being helped by announcing the signing of a new goalkeeper on Thursday night, with the current occupant knowing he has a month of games to play before being replace in January. It clearly had an effect. Not that Linfield were worried by that.
When Crusaders hit crossfield balls, they went out for a throw. When Linfield hit crossfield balls, they would find somebody, usually Joel Cooper. Kyle Owens, playing despite being sent-off last week (I assume his red card was successful in appeal, or it has been appealed in order to stall the ban) being dragged out wide, and looking as comfortable as you’d expect a big lump playing at full-back to look.
Paul Heatley had a speculative shot go wide. That was as close as Crusaders got in the first-half, barring a shot which looked to be going over, but dropped down and hot the top of the net.
Andrew Waterworth chased a through ball, getting to the ball ahead of a defender, but his quick shot hit the keeper and went out for a corner.
Linfield knew if they got a third, it would secure the points by half-time, but they just couldn’t get it. Just as importantly, they kept Crusaders out, the main significant difference between this game and the game against Cliftonville a few weeks back.
Even if it was 2-1, Linfield still would have left the pitch confident of getting the points.
Crusaders were all over the place defensively. A couple of throw-ins from Sean Ward saw Crusaders losing the ball in areas where you don’t want to lose the ball. Every time there was a break in play, Crusaders defenders were having an impromptu conference.
At half-time, Billy Joe Burns and Philip Lowry came off the bench as Crusaders looked to get a goal back. All they offered in the early minutes was a shot from Paul Heatley which was easily saved by Roy Carroll.
Soon after, Linfield got the third when Crusaders couldn’t clear a free-kick, and it fell for Josh Robinson to smash home.
A few minutes later, Joel Cooper nutmegged Sean Ward and played in Jordan Stewart. If it was me, I would have smashed it in, but decided to go around one defender and the keeper before firing into the empty net.
It was like a cover version of his goal against La Fiorita last season.
What stands out the more you watch the video of the goal, is that Billy Joe Burns gives up and doesn’t chase back as soon as the ball goes to Stewart. If he did, he might have been able to stop him from scoring, or put him under pressure.
His season, like his Linfield career, has taken a while to get going. Now to keep this up.
Crusaders pulled a goal back when Philip Lowry scored from close range after a corner. You never got the feeling that it was going to be the start of a comeback, and so it proved, as Linfield held out for the 4-1 win.
It would have been nice to get a first clean sheet in nine games though.
They almost won 5-1 when a counter attack saw substitute Michael O’Connor unable to get on the end of a cross.
Appropriately, the match ended with Linfield keeping the ball for the final minute of injury time and Crusaders unable to get it. It was like that the entire game.
Not only does this win put Linfield eight points clear of Crusaders, they went six points clear of Glenavon (albeit with a game more played). They still remain behind Ballymena United. With home games for Ballymena against Institute and Newry City between now and Boxing Day, you’d expect their winning run to continue. And it gave their goal difference a boost.
You can’t really rule out a team until Linfield go ten points clear of them. Linfield only have that gap from Coleraine, but Coleraine have a game in hand.
The truth is, Linfield are looking up and have a cushion from the teams below them.
Next Saturday, sees a trip to Newry, which has been pushed back to Saturday from Friday night due to Linfield’s involvement in the NIFL Cup.
You have to say fair play to Newry regarding that, as they would have been entitled (and probably tempted) to tell Linfield to clear off when asked to move the game. The 1pm start gives Linfield a chance to put points on the board early in the day and put the pressure on their rivals as they enter the pitch for their 3pm kick-offs.
Before that, is a trip to Stangmore Park in the NIFL Cup with a place in the final up or grabs. Feeling pessimistic about this, Dungannon are due one against us. I’m not saying we are awful in this competition, but it was so long ago since we won it, Glenn Ferguson scored the winner.
Talking of negative optimism, Glentoran haven’t won in eight matches (seven in the League).
The thought of them going into Boxing Day without a win in nine fills me with dread. You know what will happen.
Since my last blog, the fixtures for Euro 2020 Qualifiers have been announced.
Estonia and Belarus at home first. That’ll do. Then the return games in June 2019. We simply need to have twelve points on board before we face Holland and Germany.
The first games against those two, in September and October, are standalone fixtures. Unfortunately, UEFA rules state that teams must play a friendly on free dates, which is inconvenient, as Northern Ireland would be better off concentrating on that one Qualifier and not have a friendly in the way.
I imagine there will be a friendly arranged before the June double header in order to stop players going stale after so long without a game for their clubs. A random game in a random English ground, like Qatar in Crewe would be great.
The away game in Holland will be in Rotterdam. I’ve been to Rotterdam, and listened to Rotterdam by The Beautiful South on my ipod as I entered. I went to a match there, between Excelsior Rotterdam and VVV Venlo, which even had a player eligible for Northern Ireland playing. I visited De Kuip to have a look around, though there was no match on.
The home match against Holland will be on Saturday 16th November at 7.45pm, so it will mean Linfield will be away that weekend, though the date is still to be confirmed. Previously, when Northern Ireland have been at home on a Saturday night, there have been 3pm games that day. Hopefully, Linfield won’t have a long trip that day if they do play.
Another draw this week was the Irish Cup. You always want a lower league team away. We got one at home. I would have been all over Ballyclare away, even though my last visit there was a defeat in 2014.
And finally, the game against Glentoran on the 26th is live on Sky. That’s 26th January, and it’s now been moved to Monday 28th January. I fly out to Manchester the next day. Good job it’s not an early morning flight.
That will be Linfield’s second appearance on Sky Sports this season. Let’s hope for a third one in mid February.