Holders Linfield tonight booked their place in the quarter-finals of the Bet McLean Cup with a 2-1 win over rivals Glentoran at The Oval courtesy of a brace from Joel Cooper which extended their run to ten consecutive victories.
The Blues – who are record holders of the Cup, having won the competition on 31 occasions – made one change to the team that beat Newry 3-0 last weekend, with Kyle McClean coming into the side in place of Chris McKee.
David Healy’s men got off to a good start as they took the lead after fourteen minutes. It came following a set-piece for which Linfield had pushed high up the pitch and Chris Shields received the ball out left, around ten yards inside the Glentoran half and he played a wonderful, pinpoint diagonal ball to find Joel Cooper peeling away unmarked at the back post and the winger controlled the ball on his chest before slotting the ball underneath the goalkeeper, sweeping in a right-footed shot.
The Blues were then dealt a blow five minutes later when Ben Hall suffered a nasty head injury as he was caught accidentally by the knee of Glentoran forward Jay Donnelly, who fell across the defender’s path. Hall stayed down for a couple of minutes and also sustained a bloodied nose that appeared to be broken, and Linfield made his health their priority as they withdrew him from the action, replacing him with Josh Archer, as Chris Shields dropped seamlessly back into central defence.
Midway through the first half Linfield almost added a second goal following a move down the right wing. The once-again excellent Michael Newberry whipped in an excellent cross with his weaker left foot and found the head of Joel Cooper who headed just wide of the post from inside the box.
After a quieter spell of ten minutes or so, Linfield’s Matthew Clarke got things lifted again with an excellent challenge that was hard but fair, and then the defender threatened for the Blues as he headed over Kyle McClean’s free-kick delivery from the left following a foul on Matthew Fitzpatrick.
Glentoran’s only real chances of the first half came at the tail end of it. Firstly, the best chance which was engineered by Daire O’Connor who did well down the right to squeeze a cross in and put it on a plate for Jay Donnelly in a central position, only for the striker for fluff his lines with a miskick.
James Singleton also threatened on the stroke of half-time when Linfield ‘keeper Chris Johns punched a corner delivery out to the edge of the box where Singleton hit a first-time half-volley which flashed wide.
HT: Glentoran 0-1 Linfield
Whatever David Healy says to his players at half-time seems to work a treat. On Saturday it took just seven minutes after the break before they scored against Newry, and tonight at The Oval it only took three minutes after the restart for the Blues to double their lead.
What a goal it was too. A cross from Matthew Clarke down the left was hung up to the back post and Glentoran left-back Johnny Russell failed to get enough purchase on his attempted clearance header, glancing the ball on to the feet of alert Linfield winger Joel Cooper who, without even moving, took a touch an effortlessly curled the ball into the far top corner. A real moment of class from the Ballyclare-native for his second of the night to take him into double figures for the season.
The Blues threatened to add a third with an excellent passing move. Kirk Millar played a one-two with Josh Archer to create space and the winger then threaded a neat pass through to Joel Cooper inside the box. Instead of going for a hat-trick, Cooper was unselfishness and showed good vision as he pulled the ball back to Jamie Mulgrew who was free inside the box, but he fired well over the crossbar from a position he was well capable of scoring from.
Against the run of play, Glentoran had a rare chance but they failed to take advantaged of it. It was an opportunity that was presented to them following a loose pass on the edge of the Linfield box, but Glens striker Jay Donnelly snatched at it and dragged a shot well wide from a great position.
In-form Joel Cooper was fouled down the right a short time later but Glentoran’s young full-back Johnny Russell which led to a free-kick delivered by Kirk Millar. The cross found its way through to Matthew Fitzpatrick at the back post and he chested the ball down before seeing a volley deflected wide. From the corner that followed, Cooper delivered to the front post where Euan East headed just over as he continues to knock on the door of a first goal in Linfield colours.
Midway through the second half, David Healy made a like-for-like change up front, with McKee replacing Fitzpatrick, and McKee created a chance shortly after coming on as he crossed from the left to find Cooper who was denied a hat-trick by an excellent save by McCarey who tipped over a fierce strike.
McKee also threatened with a shot that went over the crossbar after being found in the box by Cooper, and Kirk Millar also had a penalty appeal rejected into the last ten minutes after going down from a challenge from Singleton, who the referee felt simply outmuscled Millar.
The Glens then pulled a goal back on 83 minutes. It came out of nowhere, but it sparked new life into the contest in a game that was comfortable for The Blues for so long. It came from Daire O’Connor’s cross from the right and was headed in by Jay Donnelly.
The match had a nervy ending, though Linfield and probably should have prevented that when they missed a golden opportunity a minute after Glentoran’s goal. Kirk Millar found Joel Cooper unmarked in the box at a corner and he swept the ball on to Kyle McClean who fired over from a position that he probably should have scored from, and the way he’s been playing this season you’d have backed him to do so.
The Blues had a stroke of luck on 88 minutes when a Glentoran corner delivered by Shay McCartan found James Singleton free in the middle, but his header seemed to hit his own teammate, Cammy Palmer on the face of goal and Linfield were then able to scramble the ball away.
There was one last big opportunity in it for Glentoran right at the death of four minutes of additional time as former Linfield midfielder Cammy Palmer hooked in a dangerous cross from the right and it was met by Junior who rose well, only to see his header strike the top of the crossbar.
In the end, however, it was a deserved victory for Linfield who were comfortably in command until the latter stages of the match. The draw for the quarter-finals and semi-finals will take place tomorrow (Wednesday 8 November) at 6pm, live on the official NI Football League YouTube channel.
FT: Glentoran 1-2 Linfield