Linfield ..... (2)3 ..... Crusaders ..... (1)2
There’s an all too familiar look at the top of the Danske Bank Irish League Premiership this morning as this season’s much anticipated split approaches.
Last night at the National Stadium substitute Ethan Devine’s towering header four minutes into added time, won a rip-roaring contest for Linfield, breaking Crusaders’ hearts. One could argue really, there didn’t deserve to be a loser.
In fact just moments before after some great work in midfield by Philip Lowry and out wide by Clarke, Adam Lecky could’ve, maybe should’ve, given victory to the Shore Road men. It took a great stop by Chris Johns to thwart the lanky striker.
It was that sort of game, one of the best of the domestic season, hard to call a winner and you simply must admire Linfield’s resolve and desire in getting over the line. They’ve done it so many times. It’s part of their DNA.
With Cliftonville off on Cup Final duty this weekend and Glentoran playing later today at Dungannon, you wonder what this result does for the championship race. It certainly helps keep Linfield confidence bubbling after four straight victories since losing in east Belfast, early February, and cranks the pressure up a little on the chasing pair.
There was clear relief at the final whistle last night with Blue-men knowing dropped points would open the door again.
A tight, dour contest may have been anticipated. It was close, but there was rarely a dull moment as both sides set about their tasks in swashbuckling style.
The battle of the baldies, Clarke and Shields, playing on the left side of a back three, provided a striking cameo as the pair went about their business clashing several times. It was a great tussle between committed men, with no quarter asked or given.
There were two penalties, each questionable, particularly the first when Miller’s fierce drive struck the elbow of Weir, who was yellow carded. The Crusaders midfielder with elbow tucked in and having little chance of evading the strike could count himself unlucky. Perhaps the clamour of appeals from those in blue influenced the referee, a common reaction these days when anything goes towards a defender’s hand or arm in the box.
Shields converted as he normally does from the spot, calmly and clinically. That put Linfield 2-1 up on the stroke of half time, after young Chris McKee, one of Linfield’s plethora of loanee starlets, and experienced Jonathan McMurray had traded fine finishes to leave the game deadlocked at 1-1.
Crusaders, feeling aggrieved to reach the interval behind, displayed intent from the restart. The excellent Ben Kennedy, one of this season’s top performers anywhere, rifled a long range shot over Johns’ bar. Then on 58 mins in an almost carbon copy of the incident which brought Linfield’s penalty, the same player had a drive blocked by Jimmy Callacher’s outstretched arm.
Referee, Tim Marshall again pointed to the spot, and Kennedy obliged sending the Crusaders contingent up in the North Stand into voice.
Tuffey produced a wonderful reflex save from Vertainen three minutes later to maintain parity, and at the other end Lecky’s ball across he box almost set up McMurray for a second, but stretching vainly, the Crues striker could not steer the ball on target.
The Crusaders ‘keeper again dived to his left to push away a Vertainen effort from twenty yards on 80 mins. Jordan Stewart gathered but Tuffey proved equal to the diminutive midfielder’s follow up from a narrow angle.
Both sides continued to go for it. There was no mindset in either camp of settling for a point.
The fourth official held up the board signalling 4 additional minutes. Home fans probably felt ‘2 points dropped’, were possibly even relieved after Johns’ save from Lecky to secure just one, but then Devine timed his intervention and jump to perfection. Pandemonium in the South Stand and no time for retaliation.
Linfield: Johns - Hall, Callacher, Shields - Millar (Stewart, 72), McClean (Evans 72), Fallon, Quinn (Newberry 72), Salam - Vertainen (A Clarke 84), McKee (Devine 79).
Bench (unused): Walsh, M Clarke.
Crusaders: Tuffey - Forsythe, Wilson, Robinson, O’Rourke (Hegarty 44) - Weir, Lowry, Winchester (Lecky 57) - McMurray (Doyle 79), Kennedy, R Clarke.
Bench (unused): Shields, Patterson, Owens, Patterson.
Referee: Tim Marshall (Irvinestown)