CARRICK RANGERS 1-2 LINFIELD 4.3.2022

Having been postponed last week, Linfield fans had to wait six days for this game.

Was it worth the wait? Well, they got three points, which is the only positive you can take from a match that was every bit as uncomfortable as the scoreline suggests.

Despite two wins from the previous two meetings this season, Linfield would have been well warned that Carrick would be difficult opponents.

The game in October was decided by a four goal blitz in ten minutes while the meeting in November was decided with a late penalty and an even later counter attack settled the game in Linfield’s favour.

And, of course, Linfield’s last visit to Taylor’s Avenue was a barely deserved 1-1 draw.

There were no Linfield fans at that game. There were no Carrick fans at it either. Such was the way things were in early 2021.

Although there was a County Antrim Shield meeting in October 2020, for most Linfield fans, this would have been their first visit to Taylor’s Avenue since March 2020.

It was a different world back then, on a day that would be the day the football stopped, without a single ball being kicked in Northern Ireland again until the Irish Cup Semi-Finals in late July 2020. Linfield weren’t involved, let’s not talk about that.

That day, I was talking to someone I hadn’t seen in a while, who told me he had just retired and was planning to use his free time going to more Linfield matches, while I walked past Rohan Ferguson, who missed the match through injury, telling a supporter that he would be fit to play against Larne the following weekend.

Nobody saw it coming.

When the postponement was announced, this was the obvious date to reschedule the game with both sides having a free weekend due to both sides being out of the Irish Cup.

Naturally, a Saturday would have been perfect seeing as this game was no longer going to be streamed.

With the weather being so good, I could have made a day of it by heading to Whitehead for a late morning stroll before the match.

Unfortunately, it would be Friday night, i’m guessing Linfield weren’t too bothered by that as they could claim it gave them a slight advantage over Ballymena United regarding their next match four days after this, with Ballymena playing on Saturday afternoon, and then into Saturday teatime with their Irish Cup tie against Larne going to extra-time and penalties.

When the game was originally scheduled, it presented Linfield with an opportunity to go three points clear at the top. With the postponement, and wins for Glentoran and Cliftonville, it meant Linfield were now trying to keep up instead of setting the pace. A win would have sent them top.

Linfield lined up 3-5-2, 3-4-3. Not for me. Maybe brought about through necessity with no left-backs, but hopefully the return of Niall Quinn will see the end of it.

Just three minutes was all it took for Linfield to take the lead when a cross from Jake Hastie was diverted into his own net by a Carrick defender.

Getting an early goal in a match like this was perfect, but it was just one minute later than the goal Shayne Lavery scored to put Linfield 1-0 up in a live Sky game at the same venue in February 2021. Linfield ended up having to settle for a barely deserved point. A warning, it it was needed.

If you were hoping for that goal would be a springboard, you would be wrong, as the ball was spending far too much time in the air in the minutes afterwards.

There was a point midway through the first-half where you realised that it actually wasn’t that great a performance, the early goal had just left a deceptive feeling that things were going great.

It looked like Linfield were going to get that second goal when Chris McKee followed up after a Kyle McClean shot was saved but he was denied by a last gasp tackle.

There was a handball appeal for Linfield (I didn’t have a good view of the incident) and there were brief celebrations when the Referee’s whistle blew after an appeal. Those celebrations were premature as it turned out he was stopping the game due to two Carrick players lying injured in the goalmouth.

Soon afterwards, it was 2-0 to Linfield, and it was Jake Hastie involved, three successive goals he has been involved in.

He worked his way into a crossing position from a short corner, the ball falling to Chris McKee after a scramble, and he backheeled it home.

McKee wasn’t being showboaty, it was all he could do on the ground with his back to goal.

It doesn’t matter how they go in, as long as they go in. Linfield now had a cushion.

A few minutes later, Christy Manzinga headed home to make it 3-0, but the joy was short lived as the offside flag went up.

If it did count, that would surely have been the game in the bag.

It looked like there would be an opportunity for a third when there was a penalty appeal after Conor Pepper tangled with Ben Tilney. I didn’t think it was to be honest. I would have happily accepted it though.

2-0 up at half-time without a vintage performance, now Linfield needed to kill the game with goal difference being so key. Glentoran won on this matchday by two goals so it was important for Linfield to at least match them.

The situation is so tight, that one big win for Glentoran against compliant opposition would blow away Linfield’s advantage in an instant. Every goal counts.

Forget about the goal difference, Linfield needed a third goal to just kill the game, ensure that there was no drama.

It looked like that was going to come when Christy Manzinga was played through on goal, but his low shot was saved by the legs of Carrick’s keeper.

A header that had to be cleared off the line by Chris Shields should have served as a warning that this game wasn’t won yet for Linfield.

It was a warning that was ignored as Jordan Gibson created space for himself and fired in off the post.

Suddenly, there was now a game on, and the last twenty minutes weren’t going to as comfortable as hoped.

You couldn’t say it wasn’t coming. Linfield were coasting, hoping to get away with doing the bare minimum.

Doing that at 2-0 was always a risk. You can get away with it at 3, 4 or 5-0 up.

In response, Linfield brought on Niall Quinn, Ethan Devine and Eetu Vertainen.

However, it was Carrick who had the last big chance of the game, an effort which hit the side netting.

Stood at the opposite end, it was enough to cause concern amongst Linfield fans.

They weren’t helping themselves. Far too often, Carrick’s defence and keeper weren’t put under pressure when on the ball, enabling then to set themselves up to launch the ball upfield.

As a result, there were quite a few scary moments for Linfield. All it needed was once bounce to fall Carrick’s way.

Thankfully, Linfield were just about able to see the game out and win 2-1.

However, it was a performance that was very concerning. They won’t get away with a similar performance in upcoming games against Ballymena United or Crusaders.

Two games that are massive. They all are at this time of year, but these two especially are.

While Linfield are at Ballymena, Glentoran and Cliftonville face each other at The Oval.

Guaranteed points droppage below Linfield that they simply have to take advantage of.

You could take a positive if there was a winner at The Oval, but Linfield simply have to win in order to be looking at what the best result is.

If they do that, they play first in the next matchday, an opportunity to put pressure on rivals before they play on Saturday.

Meanwhile, i’ve booked a weekend to Edinburgh for early May, the weekend of the Irish Cup Final, which i’ll have no interest in.

I may take in a football match there (No fixtures confirmed yet as it is post-split and Play-Offs) but it’s not specifically a football trip.

Let’s hope I go there with Linfield having another title in the bag.

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