Linfield warmed up for their opening UEFA Cup group match with a ………… ah, if only.
It’s now a case of back to reality and domestic action, and it’s been a satisfactory first week back, with three points away to Cliftonville, and a County Antrim Shield win over East Belfast.
That win over East Belfast especially pleasing, as some players who aren’t regular starters got game time, and some players got debuts.
Matthew Shevlin got a first start and goal, and Andrew Waterworth got a goal as well, and kept his place in the starting eleven, with nobody have to make way for Shayne Lavery, as an injury to Daniel Kearns enabled him to go back into the eleven.
Injuries to Kearns and Jordan Stewart meant that Linfield were a bit light when it came to attacking midfield options from the bench. Those injuries presented an opportunity for Daniel Reynolds, another goalscorer from the midweek Shield match.
It was Linfield who had the better of the opening minutes, with Shayne Lavery flicking wide from a Joel Cooper cross.
Lavery was then played in but looked too wide to score. His cross/shot flashed across the Glentoran six yard box, Kirk Millar unable to keep up with his run and get on the end of it.
There was no doubt that Linfield were up for this game, but they couldn’t get an early goal.
Although, early goals have never been a good thing for Linfield in this fixture in recent year, it still would have been welcomed.
Having ridden out that spell of Linfield pressure, Glentoran were able to spend some time in Linfield’s half, in front of the biggest exodus from East Belfast to South Belfast outside of Boxing Day for a while.
There weren’t any moments of worry for Linfield. I say that, but any time Glentoran have the ball in Linfield’s half, even if they are well away from goal, I naturally become nervous. It’s just the way I am.
After a strong start, the afternoon didn’t really happen for Joel Cooper, not getting much joy when taking on his opposing full-back.
Linfield’s next big chance gave when Bastien Hery headed over from close range. I don’t think he realised that Glentoran keeper Marijan Antolovic was hopelessly out of position.
Antolovic doesn’t need any vaccinations, because he never caught anything, keeping Linfield attacks alive longer than they should have been.
His lack of willingness to catch crosses or hold on to shots always gave Linfield hope that they could force an error out of him.
Glentoran’s shots on goal in the first-half were long range shots from Robbie McDaid and Joe Crowe which looked a lot closer than they were as I was sat at the opposite end.
By this point, Crowe was on a yellow card, having picked up a card for a cynical foul on Shayne Lavery as he raced towards goal.
Linfield’s only other attacking moments of note in the first-half was a long range shot from Andrew Waterworth which went over, as the ball set up, he was fancying a repeat of his goal at The Oval in 2016, and a cross which just evaded Mark Stafford who would have scored if he could get on the end of it.
0-0 at half-time but no need to panic. If Linfield could keep creating chances, surely one would go in. And if they can’t create chances, there was always the possibility that Glentoran’s keeper might gift them one.
As half-time scores filtered through, they were all going Linfield’s way, with Crusaders and Coleraine both drawing their matches. It didn’t matter if other results were going for or against Linfield, they still had to help themselves.
However, if Coleraine and/or Crusaders did fail to win, and Linfield took advantage, they would be finishing the day no higher than 9th, as the full-time whistle was blowing in the 2pm kick-off at The Brandywell, where Larne had just beaten Institute 4-1.
The second-half was very nervous, with neither team creating a clear cut opportunity.
With each passing minute, it was clear how important the first goal was going to be, if there was one. This match was not going to finish 1-1. It would either be 0-0, or somebody would sneak it 1-0.
Despite this, David Healy was reluctant to use any of the options on the bench.
One of those options was Matthew Shevlin, who had a decent cameo off the bench at Solitude the previous week, another was to bring on Matthew Clarke and push Niall Quinn forward.
However, it was Stephen Fallon who came on for Andrew Waterworth, just minutes after Robbie McDaid hit the bar for Glentoran.
On 86 minutes, it was Linfield who got the breakthrough when Bastien Hery instigated a move which saw Mark Stafford play the ball to Kirk Millar in space, not a lot, but enough to set himself up to get a shot at goal, which went in via a deflection.
The celebrations amongst the home fans showed how important a goal it was. Not just in the match, but in the title race, with Linfield having to come back from a ten point deficit and not being able to afford any dropped points.
It was such a big goal, David Healy joined in the celebrations, running faster than he had ever run as a player.
Having spent 86 minutes trying to get in front, it was important now for Linfield to stay in front in what time remained. They did that, Glentoran never having any opportunity to get an equaliser.
Even though Linfield didn’t move up the table or get any closer to the top, it was still a big win, as the draw between Ballymena United and Coleraine, and defeats for Dungannon Swifts and Glentoran mean that Linfield could jump up to 4th if results go their way on the next matchday.
They’ll have to wait two days for any such opportunity, with the trip to Carrick Rangers being selected for live coverage on Sky Sports.
Talking of results going their way, it could have been so much better if Glenavon hadn’t missed a last minute penalty to equalise against Crusaders. We can’t really complain about Glenavon being useless, we’ve benefitted from it plenty of times in the past. Let’s hope they stay useless for the next two weeks.
I dare say, Crusaders are probably more disappointed about Linfield’s late win than Linfield are about Crusaders late escape.
You could pick holes in Crusaders start by pointing out that four of their opening six games have come against the bottom four.
Before Carrick, is a NIFL Cup trip to Ballinamallard for Linfield as a busy period of fixtures get underway.
That run of games might not include any UEFA Cup Group Stage matches, but there’s still enough to keep minds occupied and focused.