After a Fruitful February (four games, four win), Linfield were hoping for a Marvellous March, returning to League action after a weekend off, with a trip to Carrick Rangers, as the season reaches the final straight.
This would also be Linfield’s last game of the season against an opponent in the bottom half of the table. Despite Carrick’s position outside the Top 6, this wouldn’t be an easy game for Linfield.
Their recent record against Carrick is good. Very good. In the four seasons Carrick have played in the top flight since promotion in 2015, Linfield have won ten and drawn one of the eleven meetings, only conceding one goal. An incredible run of nine successive clean sheets against Carrick. And the one goal that Carrick have scored in this period was a penalty.
Despite scoring four goals in each of their last two games, Linfield were forced into two changes through injury, Two Fs – Ferguson and Fallon, probably generating a few Fs amongst Linfield supporters when they heard the news. This was the first game that Rohan Ferguson had missed in the League this season.
Alex Moore got the nod ahead of Gareth Deane to replace him, his first appearance for the club since May 2018.
Bastien Hery, fresh from an international call-up for Madagascar, got the nod to replace Fallon in midfield.
Linfield’s squad was being stretched, just as it will be in January 2021 if Madagascar qualify for the African Cup Of Nations.
Also in receipt of good news, or not if you’re superstitious, is Andrew Waterworth, who won the Player Of The Month award for February, after a run of six goals in four games.
There are cynics who believe the award in jinxed, so it might not be a cause for celebration.
If you are of that persuasion, you’ll be hoping Oran Kearney beats David Healy to the Manager Of The Month award. Glentoran, Crusaders and Cliftonville were be hoping they get a joint award.
Thankfully, it was announced on Sunday morning that the winner was Kearney, which is good news if you believe the award is jinxed.
Positioned ready for the end that Linfield usually attack in the first-half (the one behind the goal where you just stand with no shelter), I got a shock when the sides switched ends and Linfield would now be attacking the away stand they usually attack in the second-half.
So, a quick dash to get into the position where Linfield were attacking, I was hoping there’d be no goal for Linfield inside the first minute of the game, so I wouldn’t miss it or have an obstructed view while being in motion.
They almost did, taking just ten seconds for Andrew Waterworth to look like he was going to get in behind Carrick’s defence, a bad bounce denying him the opportunity, and Carrick were able to clear the danger.
Joel Cooper got the crowd excited with a run out wide as Linfield searched for an early goal to settle the nerves.
They suffered an early blow when Niall Quinn went off injured. Thankfully, Linfield had a ready made replacement on the bench in the shape of Matthew Clarke.
Every weekend for what seems forever, there has been a named storm. No named storm this weekend, but Carrick has it’s own microclimate where today it was very windy. Carrick had it to their advantage in the first-half, and weren’t afraid to hit speculative long range shots.
A lot of them looked like they might be causing Alex Moore problems when the ball was in mid air. However, when the ball dropped down to earth, they turned out to be easy saves.
Whilst Moore was making a lot of saves, none of them were causing any trouble to Moore. You still have to make those saves.
Jordan Stewart had Linfield’s first effort on goal when he got into space but just over.
Soon after, Linfield took the lead when Chris Casement burst down the right wing and got himself into a crossing position in the penalty area. His cross was deflected onto the post, before an attempted clearance hit Kirk Millar and went into the net to put Linfield 1-0 up.
A stroke of luck perhaps, but you make your own luck. If Casement doesn’t make the run and if Millar doesn’t go into the penalty area, Linfield don’t get the goal.
An early goal was exactly what Linfield needed. They’ve struggled this season against teams who have had something to defend. They’ve especially struggled in the previous meetings with Carrick after failing to establish control of the game early on.
They couldn’t get the second goal that they needed. Andrew Waterworth thought he was going to get it but he was flagged offside.
Waterworth looked as though he was going to set up Kirk Millar (Should it not be the other way around?) when the ball fell loose to him after a challenge with Carrick’s keeper, it looked like he was going to put the ball into the empty net, only to be denied by a last ditch tackle.
1-0 up at half-time. Not playing great, but not playing awful. One more goal, and that would be three points.
They started the second-half determined to get that goal, with Joel Cooper firing a shot over in the opening seconds.
There wasn’t long to wait for that second goal, when Kirk Millar curled in a spectacular free-kick to make it 2-0.
It was such a good goal, even one of the Carrick subs warming up beside me applauded it.
Realistically, that was the game for Linfield. There was no way Carrick were going to score two. They didn’t even look like getting one.
Despite that, Linfield still needed a third just to be sure.
Soon after, Shayne Lavery came on for Jordan Stewart. I presume he had a slight injury as it was too early to be making a change with the game won, especially as it was only 2-0.
Lavery had a frustrating afternoon, getting into positions but being denied by a combination of post and Carrick’s keeper.
He almost got an assist when he crossed for Kirk Millar, but his header went just wide, as he looked for a hat-trick.
Millar had an effort go over as well. Whenever he got the ball in an attacking position, fans were urging him on to get the matchball.
There would be no third goal, but two was enough, another three points on the board.
Linfield’s gap at the top remained at four points, but this was a week where you could definitively argue that this season’s title race was whittled down to two teams.
Tuesday’s North Belfast Derby was effectively a title eliminator, where Cliftonville and Crusaders looked to reduce the gap to eight points.
A draw was perfect for Linfield, as it meant they are both ten points behind Linfield. Wins for them both meant they remain ten points behind.
The points difference is bigger than the number of games remaining. Even if either of them wins their last seven games to finish above Linfield, they’ll have to get seven more points than Coleraine as well.
Glentoran kicked off eight points behind Linfield, but the teams have to play each other twice.
That meant they had to win all their remaining games and hope Linfield drop a further three points.
Defeat at home to Cliftonville means the gap is eleven. That is too much to make up at this time of year.
I’m saying it. I’m writing them off. Neither Glentoran, Cliftonville or Crusaders will be 2020 Irish League Champions. It will be either Linfield or Coleraine.
Assuming that Linfield and Coleraine are the Top 2, 3rd place will be a UEFA Cup place if Coleraine win the Irish Cup, and Larne are in the mix for that now, giving those three something else to worry about.
Linfield and Coleraine both won 2-0, which means the goal difference remains at seven in Linfield’s favour. That seems like a lot, but that can be wiped out quite quickly.
It isn’t the big decisive advantage lurking in the background as it was in 2017.
Up next for Linfield is a home match against Larne.
A Larne side who have won their last six League matches.
However, Linfield have won their last five League matches and are unbeaten at Windsor Park in the League since August.
Larne will play Coleraine the week after. I have a suspicion that Linfield and Coleraine will replicate each others results against Larne just as Linfield and Glentoran did in January.
A big game for Linfield to get the win, keep the momentum going and keep the doubters at bay.
Especially as it’s hard to put a case forward for Dungannon Swifts getting a result away to Coleraine.
This week saw the Irish Cup Semi-Final draw, and my oh my, what a kerfuffle.
Surely when this season’s calendar was being created, somebody could have spotted that Irish Cup Semi-Finals over an international weekend could have been problematic if Windsor Park was unavailable.
Especially as they amended the dates of the Semi-Finals in 2015 because it was going to fall on an International Weekend. And 2015 has the exact same (from 1st March onwards) calendar as 2020.
And then to top it off, Cliftonville v Glentoran will be on a date when both clubs will have their Managers away on a Coaching Course.
Did nobody think to ask both clubs before confirming a date?
Talking of draws, this week saw the draw for the UEFA Nonsense League.
Northern Ireland have the potential to finish anywhere between 1st and 4th. And there’ll be two sons of 90s players playing at Windsor Park in the shape of Erling Haaland and Ianis Hagi. Ianis Hagi will hope to avoid being sent-off at Windsor Park like his dad.
I had a look and Toni Polster and Andreas Herzog don’t have a son in the Austria squad.
I’m not booked for any of the away games. Austria would be the most tempting, especially as a double header with Slovakia (There is only one hour between Vienna and Bratislava)
Slovakia are at home to Scotland on the same day that Austria face Northern Ireland.
Talking of travelling, Flybe have gone under, which is a bit of a shitter, as I would use them when I fly to United matches.
As well as a lot of places which will now be cut off for Belfast (We don’t even have a lot of options to begin with), Flybe do a lot of Easyjet routes, so expect Easyjet prices to go up now that they have no competition.
Loganair haven’t wasted time and picked up the Aberdeen and Inverness routes, going direct.
Very tempted by that, for both cities, but Aberdeen has been interesting me after seeing it on Frankie Boyle’s Tour Of Scotland and Susan Calman’s Secret Scotland, and it has some decent Street Art.
However, my next football trip will be a short train journey across Belfast to The Oval in just under two weeks time.
Hopefully by then, Linfield will have a further three points in the bag.