BETMCLEAN CUP FINAL TICKETS

Linfield returned to the top of the Sports Direct Premiership with a comfortable four-goal victory over Ballymena United at Windsor Park this afternoon.

The first real opening in the match came on nine minutes when Matthew Fitzpatrick worked half a yard inside the box to get a shot off, and it was met by an excellent save by Sean O’Neill down low to his right to push the ball around the post.

The striker didn’t have long to wait, however, as he opened the scoring a minute later. Typically dazzling play down the left by Joel Cooper opened up the United rearguard and he laced a cross to Fitzpatrick at the back post where he gratefully converted from close range.

Linfield’s opening goal set them on their way and the Blues probably should have doubled their lead five minutes later when Matthew Clarke got down the left to deliver an excellent, pinpoint cross for Daniel Finlayson who was unmarked at the back post and he’ll be disappointed not to have scored on his return from a five-match suspension, as he headed straight at the ‘keeper.

The Blues did then double their lead in the 23rd minute through a crisp counter-attack. Kyle McClean released Darragh McBrien down the left, and with Kirk Millar to his right, the Blues had a 2v1 scenario in their advantage. McBrien timed his pass well to set up Millar who showed composure to slot a left-footed shot beyond O’Neill for his fifth goal of the season.

Five minutes later, David Healy’s team almost extended their lead to three. It came from a clever free-kick where Joel Cooper picked out Chris Shields unmarked on the edge of the box, and his shot was well saved by O’Neill who beat it away at his near post. A couple of minutes later Shields then showed his defensive skills to produce a perfectly-timed tackle on United forward Isaac Westendorf, who would have been through on goal otherwise.

Former Linfield stalwart Jim Ervin’s side had a rare opportunity a couple of minutes before half-time but they were unable to capitalise to find a way back into the game, as Andy McGrory fired a free-kick over from 20 yards.

HT: Linfield 2-0 Ballymena United

It took the Blues a while to get going in the second half, and some slack passing almost gifted United a route back into the match. They had a huge opportunity three minutes into the second half as a slip from Euan East allowed Isaac Westendorf through on goal, but he was denied one-on-one by Chris Johns who stood tall, narrowed the angle and made a good save at an important time in the match.

The Blues started to press for a third goal fifteen to twenty minutes into the second half and threatened twice in quick succession. Firstly, Matthew Clarke fizzed in a cross towards Matthew Fitzpatrick which was well dealt with by the ‘keeper, who took a clattering in the process. Soon after, Cooper slipped Fitzpatrick in inside the box and unselfishly opted to cross in search of Darragh McBrien and Daniel Finlayson, both in a central area, but they couldn’t quite reach it.

The goal arrived for Linfield in the 68th minute and it was created by Joel Cooper, whose lovely threaded pass found ‘Man of the Match’ Kyle McClean running into the box and the midfielder created enough space to get a shot off, which he arrowed into the far corner for his fifth goal of the season. His tally of five goals and eleven assists this season is already an improvement on last season’s tally of three goals and four assists, and it’s still only November!

Impressive 25-year-old McClean almost added a twelfth assist a few minutes after his goal when he slid a pass into Darragh McBrien who was darting through the heart of the Sky Blues’ backline, but his goalbound shot was brilliantly blocked by full-back Steven McCullough.

Blues’ striker Matthew Fitzpatrick rounded off the scoring with his second goal of the match and his fourth goal of the season, as he headed in an excellent free-kick delivery provided by Kirk Millar. Linfield boss David Healy will be delighted to see the forward on the scoresheet, to improve a good tally that wasn’t reflective of his overall contribution to the team this season.

There was almost a fifth goal in additional time as a Linfield corner fell for highly-rated 15-year-old Ceadach O’Neill who skillfully chopped the ball onto his left foot and struck a sweet strike that drew yet another good save from the ‘keeper at his near post.

Linfield manager David Healy will hope the win didn’t come at a cost, however, as influential central defender Euan East hobbled off during stoppage time, requiring the Blues to finish the match with ten men. Likewise, Chris Shields was withdrawn after just over an hour as he picked up a knocked and will be assessed in the coming days, ahead of next Friday’s derby clash with Glentoran at The Oval. On the other hand, it was a plus for David Healy to leave Chris McKee as an unused substitute as he comes back from a knock picked up against Larne two weeks ago, and there was a Linfield debut for Dane McCullough who got on for the final nine minutes.

FT: Linfield 4-0 Ballymena United

Linfieldfc.com Man of the Match: Kyle McClean

Match report by Jamie Megarry