Linfield extended their unbeaten run to eleven matches with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Crusaders at Windsor Park in Sports Direct Premiership action this afternoon as Josh Archer’s first half goal proved to be the match winner.
Blues boss David Healy made one enforced change to the team which defeated Dungannon Swifts at Stangmore Park during the week. Euan East’s sending off in that match meant he missed out this afternoon as he served an automatic one-match suspension; this led to a first Linfield start for Ethan McGee at right back, with Daniel Finlayson slotting seamlessly into centre back.
Crusaders had little choice but to hand a debut to central defender Kevin Joshua who signed just a few days ago from York City. Crues boss Stephen Baxter had his hands tied somewhat, as Josh Robinson picked up a season-ending ACL injury against Larne last week, joining fellow central defenders Jimmy Callacher and Rory McKeown who are both also out for the season. Another central defender, Daniel Larmour, was serving a one-match suspension after picking up his fifth booking of the season against Larne last week. Experienced winger Paul Heatley missed out through injury.
The Blues started the match brightly, playing some neat football and were unlucky on a couple of occasions not to lead early on. Firstly, after just two minutes, a corner delivered by Kirk Millar was headed down by Daniel Finlayson, but his goalbound header was blocked on the line by teammate Matthew Fitzpatrick, who then had a rebound blocked on the line by Crusaders’ Ross Clarke.
A neat passage of play down the left then brought a second opportunity after 13 minutes as Matthew Clarke played a one-two with Darragh McBrien inside the box before the ball sat up nicely for the full-back to strike a shot from close range which drew an excellent save out of Crusaders’ widespread goalkeeper Jonathan Tuffey.
A short time later, Linfield felt hard done by when Darragh McBrien looked the clear favourite to reach a through ball beyond the Crusaders defence which would have put him through on goal, only to be pulled down by Crusaders’ Kevin Joshua, however the officials seemed to miss it, otherwise the big defender could have been in real trouble.
The Blues then broke the deadlock on 27 minutes. Kyle McClean continues to excel in midfield and he was at the heart of an excellent goal as he turned Crusaders’ Ross Clarke inside the Linfield half, before carrying the ball forward and slotting through an excellent ball into Josh Archer who darted through the heart of the Crues’ defence. Archer then took the ball across the backtracking Jarlath O’Rourke before getting into a shooting position just inside the box where he rifled in an emphatic finish for his first goal of the season, whilst it was, remarkably, McClean’s 15th assist of the season.
Linfield had a good chance to double their lead just four minutes later as Kyle McClean’s ball over the top sent Matthew Fitzpatrick through on goal, and he used his strength to initially hold off the backtracking defender Kevin Joshua, however Fitzpatrick then checked onto his left foot when he got into the box, which allowed the defender back in to make a vital block.
Crusaders made a strong end to the first half, creating two good chances. Firstly, a cross found Jarlath O’Rourke in space at the back post, but it was awkward for the left-footed defender to get a shot off, so he teed up Stewart Nixon in the middle and his shot was brilliantly blocked by Ben Hall to send it wide of goal.
Then, on the stroke of half-time, clever play from Stewart Nixon saw him open up space and slot Lloyd Anderson through inside the box, however his driven shot across goal was brilliantly saved by Chris Johns down to his right.
HT: Linfield 1-0 Crusaders
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter changed things up at half-time. After an uncomfortable first half up against Linfield forward Matthew Fitzpatrick, 6 ft 6’ tall central defender Kevin Joshua’s debut came to an end as he was withdrawn, with Jordan Owens coming on and Phillip Lowry slotting into the unfamiliar role of centre back.
Although the Blues weren’t at their best in the second half and had to really grind out what could have been a more comfortable afternoon had they grabbed a second goal, they momentarily thought they’d doubled their lead four minutes after the break as Kirk Millar’s through ball found Darragh McBrien who dispatched the ball past Tuffey at close range, only to be adjudged to have been offside when the ball was played. It must have been very tight.
The Crues had a strong five-minute spell ten or fifteen minutes into the second half where they went close a couple of times. Firstly, a long ball from Tuffey was well controlled by Stewart Nixon to set himself for a shot from just inside the box where his fierce left-footed strike flashed not far wide of the far post.
Ben Hall then made a foul to stop a Crusaders counter-attack, resulting in a booking which will see him serve a one-match suspension against Dungannon Swifts next Saturday,, having now accumulated the five-booking threshold. From the free-kick, experienced striker Jordan Owens’ header drew a good save from Chris Johns who pushed it around the post.
A moment of individual defensive brilliance from Linfield captain Jamie Mulgrew kept the Blues in front when he made an excellent goal-saving challenge on the line to block Phillip Lowry’s effort after Ben Kennedy’s corner had been knocked back across the face of goal. A scrambled ensued before Chris Johns claimed the ball, and the Hatchetmen couldn’t quite believe they hadn’t equalised.
Linfield legend Mulgrew then repeated his heroics ten minutes from time with another goal-saving block. This time it came from a long throw into the box from the impressive Nixon, and although Linfield won the initial duel through Finlayson, the ball then dropped for the unmarked Jordan Forsythe who connected sweetly on the volley inside the box, only to see his goalbound shot deflected wide of the post by Mulgrew. In the moment, it looked a certain goal.
The Blues then received a boost when Stephen Fallon made his injury return as a substitute, returning from an injury which incidentally occurred in a home League match against Crusaders on September 26. Fallon, along with Cooper who also recently returned from injury, came on for the last ten minutes in place of Josh Archer and Matthew Fitzpatrick as David Healy freshened up his team whilst Crusaders were throwing everything at it in search of an equaliser.
The closest Crusaders came to scoring in the last ten minutes was when a free-kick was knocked down towards Lloyd Anderson who slid to get a shot away at full stretch, though Chris Johns was alert to make another important reflex save. They did also have the ball in the net late on, however it was ruled out instantly for a foul on Chris Johns by Lloyd Anderson, who had little complaints about the decision.
The Blues remain four points clear of second-place Larne after 26 matches, and now turn their attention to another home League match, against Dungannon Swifts next Saturday.
FT: Linfield 1-0 Crusaders
LinfieldFC.com Man of the Match: Josh Archer
Written by Jamie Megarry