After a brief dalliance with Harland and Wolff Welders (It was their new ground that did it and nothing more) last weekend, it was back to Windsor Park for my first visit of 2022 to see Linfield take on Ballymena United there for the second time in just under a month.
That last meeting, in the week leading up to Christmas, offered Linfield the chance to go top for the first time this season.
Three weeks later, Linfield were still top, but they had the opportunity to extend their lead and have a bit of breathing space, albeit deceptively and temporary due to the match between Cliftonville and Glentoran being put back to Monday night for broadcast on Sky Sports.
As a result, this game was massive for Linfield, an opportunity to put pressure on their two biggest rivals. As long as Linfield won, it didn’t matter what the result at Solitude ends up.
A draw would be perfect, but you could live with one side winning as a gap would start to emerge with the team that loses.
Of course, all of this dependent on Linfield winning this game first of course.
Two changes out wide for Linfield with Ahmed Salam and Martin Donnelly coming in for Jordan Stewart and Kirk Millar as Linfield continued with 4-3-3/4-5-1 rather than 4-2-3-1.
There were striking options on the bench, but not a lot of experience, with Ethan Devine, who scored on his debut in the Irish Cup the previous week being joined by Andrew Clarke and new loan signing Chris McKee.
Linfield started the game camped in Ballymena’s half, the best opportunity coming when Stephen Fallon was able to cut in and curl wide off a defender.
Thankfully, there wasn’t long to wait for a breakthrough, just after the quarter hour.
Who do you think scored it?
Of course, it was Christy Manzinga.
His original shot was blocked but Ballymena couldn’t clear it, falling for a Linfield player every time, before Niall Quinn teed up Manzinga to fire home from outside the box, nonchalantly celebrating with a non celebration celebration, because it was almost a mundane goal by his standards.
A vital goal, to get an early breakthrough against traditionally stubborn opponents. Now Linfield had to kick on.
They almost did that when Manzinga was played through on goal, in a move similar to his goal against Warrenpoint Town in December.
To the shock of everybody in Windsor Park, this move didn’t result in a goal, as Ballymena’s keeper was able to get a hand on the ball as Manzinga looked to round him.
The resulting incident saw a free-kick to Linfield after the ball fell to a Linfield player outside the box, who was fouled as he looked to shoot. Ballymena’s keeper was forced into a save from the resulting free-kick from Martin Donnelly.
A satisfactory half from Linfield, the only problem was not getting a second goal, especially with drawn home games after going 1-0 up against Warrenpoint Town and Glentoran still a recent memory.
Getting a second goal as been problematic for Linfield in recent weeks, apart from against Dungannon Swifts and Oxford Sunnyside. They have been the only games since the trip to Coleraine in early December where Linfield have scored two or more.
Christy Manzinga then made space for himself before shooting over, before a bizarre incident where a cross was set up perfectly for him to volley home. only for him to fire the ball across the penalty, to the bemusement of all in Windsor Park.
In search of a second goal, David Healy turned to his bench, bringing on Kirk Millar and Chris McKee, a debut for McKee, for Salam and Donnelly.
It looked like McKee and Millar had built up an understanding while warming up, basically an arrangement where McKee gives the ball to Millar and then demands the ball back straight away.
I know i’ve been bemoaning the lack of an experienced striker, but I was impressed with McKee’s appearance on Saturday. He made good runs, made himself available and wasn’t afraid when he had the ball.
It looked like he was going to mark his debut with a goal when he got on the end of a cross but headed over from close range.
As the game entered it’s final stages, Linfield looked like they were going to get over the line despite the lack of a second goal.
That almost proved costly with 92 minutes on the clock when Niall Quinn had to get his body in the way of a goalbound Ballymena shot from just over six yards out, with Kirk Millar also having to help out from the follow-up.
Eventually, Jamie Mulgrew was able to run away with the ball before being fouled, with just fifty seconds left on the clock.
Linfield were able to see out those fifty seconds and get the three points.
Elsewhere, Larne surprisingly lost 1-0 at home to Dungannon Swifts, while Crusaders were able to keep in touch with a 1-0 win at Warrenpoint Town.
You could probably rule Larne out of the title race. It might seem premature, but it’s hard to make a case as to why they are in it
Up next, is a home match against Glenavon. Hopefully, they’ll be going into that game with a couple of results going in their favour on Friday night.
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