A last-gasp winner in the third minute of stoppage time sparked joyous scenes in the away end and gave Linfield a huge win in the context of the title race tonight as the Blues battled their way to a 2-1 win over Crusaders at Seaview – a victory which puts David Healy’s team top of the table, for tonight at least.

With just four matches remaining and the Blues coming into the match a point behind leaders Larne who have a healthier goal difference, Linfield knew they probably couldn’t afford to slip up on the Shore Road tonight, otherwise it probably would have been a fatal blow to their title hopes.

On the other hand, they were facing a Crusaders team in search of a fourth-place finish which would ensure them a home tie in the European play-offs as long-serving manager Stephen Baxter looks to end on a high before handing over the reigns to former player Declan Caddell this summer. The Hatchetmen came into the match in great form, unbeaten since late January, with five wins and two draws in their last seven outings.

The Crues made four changes to the team that beat Larne at Inver Park last week. Ross Clarke missed out through suspension, whilst Leon Barr and Adam Lecky missed out through knee injuries, and Jay Boyd dropped to the bench. In came Philip Lowry who returned from suspension, as well as Stewart Nixon, Jordan Owens, and Jude Winchester.

Linfield only made the one change from the team that were held to a goalless draw away to Glentoran last week, with Chris Shields coming in to make his first start since February 20, in place of the injured Michael Newberry. Chris McKee returned to the bench after a month out injured.

The Blues dominated possession in the first half with a couple of efforts from Kyle McClean and Daniel Finlayson on the edge of the box flashing not far wide of the post. Chris Johns was pretty much untested in the first half as the Blues had control, but could have done more when they got into the final third.

That said, Linfield took the lead on 32 minutes when Ethan McGee surged forward and found Joel Cooper on the right. He cut inside past Daniel Larmour and Philip Lowry before hitting a shot from the edge of the box which took a deflection off the head of Crusaders midfielder Robbie Weir which took it past Crues ‘keeper Tuffey who was heading the other direction.

Healy’s men could and probably should have doubled their lead before half-time. A perfectly-timed run from Kirk Millar saw him beat the offside trip to receive Ethan McGee’s ball over the top, then Millar squared it across the box to Fitzpatrick with time and space at close range, however his first touch was loose and when he got his shot off it was comfortable enough for Tuffey to save.

There was also another opportunity for Kyle McClean late in the first half as he pounced upon a loose defensive pass, but Crusaders defender did well to get back in and Weir put in an important block. Soon after, Tuffey had to claw away a corner from Kirk Millar that was otherwise going directly in.

Crusaders had one meaningful opportunity in the first half, but it was a big one. A free-kick pumped into the Linfield box was headed on by Crues forward Jordan Owens, and Ben Kennedy got on the end of it at close range, but his low volley skewed just wide of the far post.

HT: Crusaders 0-1 Linfield

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter shuffled things around at half-time. Robbie Weir moved from centre half to central midfield, Jordan Forsythe moved from central midfield to right back, and Billy Joe Burns from right back to centre half. The Crues looked instantly more threatening after the changes. On the other hand, the Blues made a laboured start to the second half, and they were made to pay as the Crues equalised in the 56th minute of the match. Jordan Forsythe clipped in an inch-perfect cross and Crusaders legend Jordan Owens did what he’s renowned for as he guided in an excellent header which gave Chris Johns no chance.

The Hatchetmen then nearly went ahead as a corner came through to defender Daniel Larmour in space at the back post, though his volley went wide of the post, but not by much,

The Blues then made a tactical tweak of their own, with Chris Shields going from centre half to central midfield. Both teams had chances midway through the second half as Kirk Millar’s well-struck, dipping shot from the edge of the box flashed just over the crossbar, and the same could be said about an effort from Crusaders midfielder Ben Kennedy.

Linfield picked up in the final twenty minutes, getting control of the match again. Chris McKee replaced Matthew Fitzpatrick on 73 minutes. The striker went close within minutes as he pounced upon a loose clearance inside the Crusaders box, however it came at him quickly and he was leaving back, ultimately firing over the bar.

Crusaders gave the Blues a real scare three minutes from the end as young substitute striker Jay Boyd robbed Chris Shields of possession on the edge of Linfield’s box, however, just like last week, the reliable Chris Johns was there again to save the day.

16-year-old forward Braiden Graham replaced Matthew Clarke on 86 minutes and what an inspired substitution it proved to be from David Healy. Two minutes into the four added minutes, the youngster got the ball on the left and burst past several established Irish League players before winning the Blues a corner. Kyle McClean whipped it to the back post where Daniel Finlayson got the better of Jordan Forsythe to get good contact on a header which, remarkably, was blocked on the line by Robbie Weir before the ball hit the foot of Crues ‘keeper Tuffey and rolled over the line for an own goal by the former Linfield player. It was a massive slice of luck for Linfield and it remains to be seen how big a goal that could be in the title race.

Larne could go back on top by a point tomorrow if they beat Cliftonville in the 17:30 kick-off. Linfield now turn their focus to another big League match, at home to Coleraine on Tuesday evening. The Blues have three League fixtures remaining, all of which are at Windsor – Coleraine, Larne, Cliftonville the opposition, in that order.

FT: Crusaders 1-2 Linfield

Written by Jamie Megarry


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