Football is all about taking our opportunities. When Linfield fell into decline in 2012, Cliftonville took advantage and won two successive titles. When Cliftonville fell into decline in 2014, Crusaders took advantage and won two successive titles. Now Linfield are hoping to take advantage of an opportunity that’s come their way, to reduce Crusaders lead at the top of the League to one point after being nine points behind in mid February.
Matches between Linfield and Crusaders could be reflected in the Pet Shop Boys song of the same name. Linfield had the brains, Crusaders had the brawn. Dropped points against the other ten clubs, especially at home, meant that Linfield didn’t yet have the look. The look of Champions that is.
Today was a must win for Linfield. A draw would have been inconvenient but the situation could have been retrieved. Defeat was unthinkable, it woudl have meant game over for Linfield, just as it did on this weekend last year.
Football is a numbers game, and there were three numbers that mattered. Four for Linfield (number of successive wins over Crusaders) and three for Crusaders (successive titles). Linfield fans were hoping the main number at 5pm would be one (number of points Linfield were off the top of the League)
Seven was a number that Linfield fans were not prepared to entertain.
Already a rare occurrence in 2017, today was Linfield’s last Saturday 3pm home game of the season. Fans arriving at Windsor Park this afternoon were hoping that the next Saturday 3pm game at Windsor Park in August would see them enter the field as Champions.
As I did my usual pre-match routine of watching the warm-ups from the Viewing Lounge, the most obvious observation was that there is a new TV in there. Hopefully that’s a permanent arrangement and not just to show the Grand National.
Getting a winner in the 5.15 at Aintree would have been a nice bonus for those watching who had a bet on, the real winner we all wanted was in the 3.00 at Windsor.
The first talking point of the afternoon came an hour before kick-off when the teamsheets were submitted, with both teams missing a key player – Mark Stafford for Linfield and Jordan Owens for Crusaders.
Crusaders loss was bigger than Linfield’s. Linfield had options to replace Stafford. Crusaders didn’t have options to replace Owens.
It was Chris Casement who got the nod ahead of Sean Ward. I would have went with Ward, who was the only defensive player on an attacking bench which included Ross Gaynor, Kirk Millar, Josh Carson and teenager Ryan Strain.
As he took his place on the bench, Strain was perhaps dreaming of a Federico Macheda style dramatic introduction to this season’s title race.
Crusaders had the better of the early moments, with Paul Heatley causing problems for Linfield in wide positions. While Linfield may not have been able to stop him getting crosses in, they were able to stop Crusaders when the crosses came in.
Linfield then got a grip and took control of the game, getting a lot of joy down their left hand side with Matthew Clarke and Niall Quinn combining to good effect.
Crusaders were taking advantage of the unwritten rule that no yellow cards are allowed in the first fifteen minutes, tactically fouling at will safe in the knowledge there would be no repercussions.
It was a foul not given that was the first talking point of the onfield action when Andrew Waterworth dispossessed Billy Joe Burns and went down under a challenge. It was untidy from Burns, but not enough to be a foul. If Waterworth had been able to get through on goal, he would surely have scored with Sean O’Neill out of position having anticipated a backpass from Burns.
Burns losing the ball was one of many nervous moments from Crusaders defenders both one and off the ball. There was a mistake in them, Linfield had to pressure them and pounce.
It was Linfield though who had the next moment of defensive nervousness in the game when Declan Caddell got a free header from a corner, but it was saved by Roy Carroll.
Linfield recovered from that and took control of the game, a lucky bounce looked like it was going to set up Niall Quinn, but a Crusaders defender just got there before him.
Despite their nervous, Crusaders defenders were getting the bounces and second balls go in their favour,
On 20 minutes, Linfield got the breakthrough. It was no surprise that it came from a cross from the left, which fell to Aaron Burns. I thought he had missed the opportunity having not taken a first time shot, but he managed to drag the ball back with three defenders around him and guide the ball home with his left foot.
I didn’t realise how good a goal it was until watching the TV footage after the game. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that if Lionel Messi scored it, Social Media would go into meltdown.
Crusaders were forced into an early substitution when Philip Lowry went off injured to be replaced by speculative shot king David Cushley.
Cushley only scores one in every one hundred shots. The worry for Linfield was that he hadn’t scored in ninety shots. His first shot of the game was a free-kick that was easily blocked by Linfield’s wall.
The pressure on Crusaders goal continued, Andrew Waterworth hitting the post from a first-time shot after a cross came in, while a Paul Smyth cross agonisingly missed everyone.
Linfield were piling on the pressure, having a flurry of corners. With no Coates or Owens, Crusaders looked vulnerable at set pieces. The lucky bounce, just seemed to fall in Crusaders favour.
Chris Casement had a free-kick saved while Jimmy Callacher could’t get enough power on a header to score after Crusaders struggled with yet another set piece as Linfield looked to get a 2-0 lead to take to the dressing room at half-time.
Linfield started the second-half in search of a second goal that would kill the game.
Crusaders might have been able to come back from 2-0 down with a half-time rollicking, it was never going to happen with the second-half ongoing. A second goal would certainly have made the final moments relaxing for Linfield. We should know by now that title run-ins are rarely relaxing.
Andrew Waterworth hit a post, his effort would have been disallowed for offside, while Niall Quinn had a low shot deflected wide, before Aaron Burns had a header saved from inside the six yard box.
On 75 minutes, it looked like Linfield were going to be made to pay for not getting that second goal when a Jimmy Callacher miskick fell to Paul Heatley, but Roy Carroll came out to deny him.
Many in the South Stand hoped that was Crusaders moment. Just as many feared there was still enough time for Crusaders to have another moment.
It was surprising that David Healy didn’t turn to his subs bench. Perhaps not that surprising, considering that there was nobody playing bad enough to be taken off.
The most obvious change was to bring on Kirk Millar to hit Crusaders with pace for the final moments.
Eventually, his hand was forced by injuries, with Sean Ward coming on for Chris Casement and Kirk Millar coming on for Paul Smyth.
Linfield began to sit back and allow Crusaders to have too much of the ball. Despite Crusaders not doing much with it, it was still far too nervous for Linfield fans liking.
Aaron Burns almost made it 2-0 in stoppage down from a cross. When the ball was in mid air, it looked like being a repeat of Niall Quinn’s goal against Crusaders last month, but the ball wouldn’t fall for him as nicely.
Instead, he had to control and hit, with O’Neill saving, but at the expense of a corner. Stephen Lowry sat with his head in his hands. Bit of an overreaction, as Linfield had the lead and the ball.
Linfield were able to hold out and win 1-0, the gap at the top of the table now one point in Crusaders favour.
Next weekend, Crusaders travel to Solitude to face Cliftonville. If the fixtures formula was followed correctly, Crusaders would be at home to Coleraine.
Given the choice, who would you rather the play?
The team on an unbeaten run, in the Cup Final and favourites to secure 3rd and automatic European football?
Or the team who are demoralised, out of sorts and on a bad run of form, resigned to the UEFA Cup Play-Offs?
It all looks a bit suspicious to me, as everybody knew that Coleraine were going to be Team 3 in the split and not Cliftonville, yet the fixture list was confirmed before the pre-split positions were confirmed.
That’s a lucky break for Crusaders as I don’t expect Cliftonville to put up much of a fight at Solitude next weekend. It’ll be a nice bonus for Crusaders to get back on a winning track after two successive defeats.
Up next for Linfield is Ballymena, who appear to be suffering from a dose of Cliftonvilleitis by suffering a dip in form since an Irish Cup exit, them too resigned to the UEFA Cup Play-Offs.
It’s a must-win game for Linfield. They all are.
Unfortunately for Linfield, Crusaders still have a hand on the trophy. It’s a very sweaty hand hanging on desperately.
Linfield just have to keep winning and hoping. What we are hoping or is a lot less than it was in mid February.