After four successive away games, it was back to Windsor Park for Linfield for the first of three successive home games, as they faced Larne for the first time this season, after the first scheduled meeting was postponed due to international call-ups.
As supporters entered Windsor Park, they did so hearing that Coleraine were 2-0 down to Institute in a 1pm kick-off. The score stayed that way, meaning that Linfield could pull closer to Coleraine with a win.
To do so, they would need to defeat a Larne side on a five match unbeaten run, having drawn against Cliftonville the previous weekend.
Whilst that run of results deserves respect, it is worth noting that they have failed to beat a Top Six team this season. They wouldn’t have it easy, but it was a game that Linfield should be winning if they have ambitions of winning the League.
There would only be one change in Linfield’s starting eleven, with Mark Stafford coming in for Jimmy Callacher. A late red card at Ballymena on Tuesday night meant that Bastien Hery would be missing.
It was anticipated that he would be getting rested around this time of year (He’s been playing without a break since February), but you’d rather have him on the bench in case of emergency.
An unchanged starting eleven meant that Linfield had two Andrews, Waterworth and Mitchell, on the pitch on St Andrew’s Day, hoping to score the winner and give the Sunday Life an easy pun headline.
It was Linfield who had the first shot of the game, when Stephen Fallon’s low shot was saved, with Andrew Waterworth flagged offside as he looked to make something out of the rebound.
Joel Cooper was getting a lot of joy out left in the early minutes of the game, with Linfield looking to get him on the ball as much as possible.
Shayne Lavery then created space for himself, evading a few Larne defenders but his low shot was easily saved by Conor Devlin.
Ben Tilney and Martin Donnelly were both able to create space for themselves to shoot, a few minutes apart, but on both occasions, their shots went over the bar.
Having survived early Linfield pressure, Larne now had the confidence to offer more of an attacking threat.
As the half neared it’s end, Linfield were forced into a change when Jamie Mulgrew went off injured, to be replaced by Chris Casement, as Linfield changed from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2.
For me, 3-5-2 doesn’t work, as it neutralises Linfield’s attacking full-backs.
This enforced change brought about a change in fortunes for Linfield as they finished the half strongly, being camped in Larne’s half, but all they could offer was a curled shot from Joel Cooper.
A strong start and a strong finish, but the bit inbetween meant Linfield needed to do so much better to secure the three points.
With each passing minute, the introduction of Jordan Stewart, back on the bench after a period of injury, was becoming inevitable.
As they left the pitch, scores elsewhere were pointing to an awkward day for the Top 4, with Cliftonville losing and Crusaders drawing, and Coleraine having already lost. The opportunity was there for Linfield to make up ground on their rivals.
A header from Shayne Lavery was all that Linfield could offer in the second-half as they continued to struggle in a game that Larne were very much in.
The inevitable introduction of Jordan Stewart came in place of Andrew Waterworth, as Linfield reverted to 4-2-3-1.
One option from the bench was Matthew Clarke for Ryan McGivern. Admittedly a like for like replacement at left-back, Clarke offered more of an attacking threat from that position in open play.
This was a game that had 1-0 written all over it. What was up for discussion, would be who to?
It looked like it was going to be Larne, when David McDaid worked space for himself and fired low, only to hit the post.
I was at the other end, and it looked like it was going in whenever he hit it. As it hit the post and rolled across, I thought it was going in, especially as Larne fans were celebrating.
Those celebrations were premature, as the ball rolled out of play. For a corner, as Rohan Ferguson got a touch on it.
Linfield were able to clear the corner and go on the counter attack, which was halted by a cynical foul. Within seconds, justice was delivered when the free-kick was missed by Conor Devlin and fell perfectly for Josh Robinson, who let the ball hit him and go into the back of the net.
How apt, that on St Andrew’s Day, in the space of two minutes, a Scottish goalkeeper made a key save to keep it 0-0, and a player called Andrew set up a goal to make it 1-0.
In the first-half, Conor Devlin struggled from a set piece due to the presence of Mark Stafford, and it happened again, but this time, Linfield were able to benefit from it.
Larne couldn’t get at Linfield to try and force an equaliser, in fact, it was Linfield who looked more likely to score, with Shayne Lavery having two opportunities.
It wasn’t costly, as Linfield were able to see out the game, and get a vital three points.
Elsewhere, Cliftonville lost to Glentoran, while Crusaders beat Dungannon Swifts, making it congested at the top of the table, with two points separating the top four, and five points separating the top five.
Glentoran seem to have snuck into the title unnoticed. If they are still there (Coleraine, Crusaders and Linfield in the next four) at the end of the month, you’ll have to take them seriously. I’ll reserve judgement until then.
Crusaders have hit a run of form, however, they have played Bottom Six teams.
It is interesting to note that Bottoms Six, especially the Bottom Three, have improved in recent weeks. Well, apart from Dungannon Swifts. Linfield’s recent wins against Carrick and Institute, a lot more laboured than the scorelines sound, are suddenly a lot more impressive than they felt at the time.
Up next, is Coleraine in the League Cup Semi-Final.
Though the League is the priority, this is a game worth winning. Keep winning momentum going, keep Coleraine on a dodgy run of form, and reach a cup final. A win here could have a knock-on effect in the title race, just like the win against Ballymena in last year’s Final did.
Also, if we reach the Final, I won’t be travelling to Ballymena for a League match on my birthday. No pressure lads.
Up next in the League, is Cliftonville at home. A must win game.
Due to games being postponed, Linfield haven’t been near the top of the table due to teams getting points while they have been inactive.
Everytime Linfield have got within touching distance of the top of the table, they have lost a key game (Crusaders, Coleraine) and allowed the gap to widen. This cannot be allowed to continue.
Win next Saturday, we go above Cliftonville, start breathing down Crusaders and Coleraine’s necks, and keep Glentoran at arms length.
Coleraine are at home to Glentoran. There will be points droppage around us, we have to take advantage of it.
It’s draw season, and yesterday saw the draw for Euro 2020.
If Northern Ireland get through, they will face Poland, Sweden and Spain. Tough draw, but no possible draw would be easy.
Poland and Sweden would be in Dublin. Sweden would be a Friday afternoon. Would definitely do a day trip for that.
Irish Cup draw will be soon (I presume this week). The usual drill. Lower league team away, ideally a ground I haven’t been to before or for a while.
So, the wishlist – Knockbreda, PSNI/QUB or Banbridge Town.
Finally, if you have Twitter on an app, you can select to get notifications everytime Linfield post a Tweet. A sort of unofficial official app, if you will.
Let’s hope on Tuesday night, they’ll be tweeting news of another cup final.