The scoreline looks a lot more comfortable than it actually was.
A full (well, a full scheduled) midweek fixture list as Linfield looked to pile the pressure on rivals as the four other clubs in the Top Five were scheduled to face each other ahead of a busy Christmas/New Year period.
It was a case of one in and one out for Linfield’s starting eleven. Chris Johns returning in goal with Jordan Stewart missing out through injury.
This was a game where Linfield needed their starting eleven to win the game, as there wasn’t a lot of attacking experience to call from the bench.
Linfield enjoyed a lot of possession in the early minutes of the game, taking the game to Carrick.
If Linfield fans were hoping this would bring an early goal, they would turn out to be disappointed as Carrick’s defensive shape thwarted Linfield and denied them any clear opportunities.
In fact, it was Carrick who had the first attempt on goal of the match when the ball was pulled back for Jim Ervin to strike on the run, but his low shot was easily saved by Chris Johns. It was worth a hit on a wet surface.
Stephen Fallon tried his luck with a shot from outside the box, but his shot went over.
Carrick had set out to frustrate and were doing just that, perfecting the trick of going to get the ball that went out instead of using the one the Ballboy has just given them, whenever the ball goes out of play.
That looked set to be undone when a stray clearance set up Martin Donnelly perfectly to strike on the run, but an alert defender was able to close him down and make a block.
It was Linfield’s best chance of the half, and it wasn’t their own work. It was a half of frustration, as the sides went in 0-0.
The early minutes of the second-half saw more attacking intensity from Linfield, but it didn’t bring a goal as Carrick held firm.
It looked like that breakthrough was going to come when Ahmad Salam, on a rich vein of form, danced past numerous Carrick defenders and when it looked like he was going to smash hit home, set up Christy Manzinga, whose shot was blocked on the line by a Carrick defender.
Manzinga then had a header blocked, and had an effort deflected as Linfield continued to endure a frustrating evening. The only way they were going to score was from a moment of inspiration, or if a Carrick player did something stupid. Neither looked like happening.
There wasn’t really a lot of attacking experience on the bench for Linfield, no Jordan Stewart or Matt Green. It might have been worth throwing on one of the youngsters to see if they could have a Federico Macheda Moment.
Windsor Park got even more nervous when Carrick had attacks of their own that gave Linfield something to worry about.
Thankfully, with just over ten minutes to go, Linfield were given the opportunity to make a breakthrough, when a cross was handled by a Carrick defender.
To be honest, I didn’t celebrate or get excited about the penalty award, I thought it was going to be missed. It had been one of those nights.
Thankfully not, as Chris Shields smashed home to give Linfield a vital 1-0 lead.
The important thing now, was not to do anything stupid and see the game out.
Of course, that wasn’t going to happen without a scare, as the South Stand gasped in horror as a backheader from Trai Hume went goalwards with Chris Johns stranded. Johns was able to get back onto his line to clear the ball.
As the game went into injury time, a Linfield counter-attack resulted in Kirk Millar scuffing the ball into the net, to sighs of relief around Windsor Park, as the points were in the bag.
Job done, but it was a tough watch at times.
It was even more important when the result came through from Inver Park, that Larne and Cliftonville drew with each other, a perfect result. As a result, Linfeld could go top if they win their game in hand, but there’s a lot of football to be played between now and that match against Ballymena United.
If Coleraine and Glentoran had drawn with each other, that would have made it a perfect evening, but they’ll be having an extra game to slot in somewhere.
Although. Coleraine getting a night off before they play Linfield isn’t ideal.
The draw for the Irish Cup was made with Linfield having a home match against Oxford Sunnyside. Hopefully, Linfield can get through. I’m still scarred by Queen’s in 2020. For that reason, i’m glad we’ve got a home draw.
Harland and Wolff Welders are also at home that day (to Annagh United), so I might go there if I can’t get there later this month as planned on the free Saturday after Linfield travel to Larne.
Some good news in the form of the IFA actually listening to supporters and reducing ticket prices for the UEFA Nations League and Euro 2024 campaigns. It should never have got to this point though.
And finally, six games have been chosen for live broadcast.
Cliftonville (away) and Larne (home) are unchanged as they were midweek fixture lists.
Crusaders, Glentoran and Carrick are all Friday nights. I was worried that the Glentoran match would be moved to the Monday night. Nobody wants to spend their birthday at The Oval.
For the Carrick match, I was hoping for an unusually warm February day so I could go to Whitehead and then Taylor’s Avenue. Maybe next season.
Warrenpoint away in late March is a teatime kick-off. Fingers crossed for a decent sunset to photograph. Oh, and a win for Linfield. Might make a day of it.
Late March is a long way off, let’s just take it one game at a time.
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