Linfield extended their lead at the top of the Sports Direct Premiership to three points tonight with a deserved victory over Crusaders at Windsor Park in a fixture that was rearranged some weeks ago due to the International call-ups for Blues’ duo Chris McKee and Jack Scott to the Northern Ireland U21 squad.
The aforementioned Jack Scott was the match-winner for Linfield at the weekend when he came on to score a brace at Loughgall, however he was ruled out tonight through injury. Meanwhile, the man he replaced – Daniel Finlayson – was available after he was brought off at the weekend as precaution due to a head wound. This meant that David Healy named an unchanged team for tonight’s visit of Crusaders.
This was arguably the Blues’ best league performance of the season so far – certainly, the first half was their best half of football. Linfield were bang on it from the first whistle with a relentless tempo of pressing from the front which Crusaders were unable to deal with.
David Healy’s men took the lead after a bright start, with the opening goal coming after nine minutes. Kyle McClean passed the ball to Joel Cooper who was in a central position – he then checked in past Billy Joe Burns to quickly get a shot off before the onrushing Robbie Weir could get his foot in. Cooper’s strike was excellent – a fizzing strike which found the bottom left corner from 25 yards.
The Blues then doubled their lead on 22 minutes with an excellent move consisting of one-touch football. Chris McKee cushioned the ball over to Stephen Fallon who cutely headed the ball back to the striker. This gave McKee enough space to lob a pass over the Crusaders full-back into Joel Cooper on the left and he then lifted in a first-time cross that was pinpoint for Matthew Fitzpatrick in the middle and he scored his first Linfield goal with a well-taken header.
It was almost 3-0 just minutes later on one of the many occasions that Matthew Clarke joyfully got down the left wing to put in a cross. He found Matthew Fitzpatrick in the middle and, with his back to goal at close range, he teed up Joel Cooper whose shot was crucially blocked which saw it deflect not far wide of goal.
Matthew Fitzpatrick also went close to a second goal towards the end of the first half when he received the ball on the left before dribbling into a central position where he unleashed a 25-yard drive that drew an excellent save from Jonny Tuffey to push the ball around the post.
The only disappointment for Linfield in a fully dominant first half was the loss of Stephen Fallon. The midfielder went down unchallenged, seeming to feel discomfort in his ankle. He received treatment and then attempted to play on for a few minutes but he never looked comfortable and was replaced by Kirk Millar. David Healy will hope it’s just a slight sprain to the ankle or something minor, as the midfielder showed how influential he can be, in his 36 minutes on the pitch.
Half Time: Linfield 2 – 0 Crusaders
The Blues’ second half performance wasn’t quite as slick as their first half display, but they did start it strongly. Straight from kick-off, they had a penalty appeal dismissed as Matthew Fitzpatrick went down from a challenge by Jarlath O’Rourke after latching onto a loose ball in the box.
Fitzpatrick also went agonisingly close to converting a brilliant cross from Daniel Finlayson into the corridor of uncertainty between Crusaders’ defence and goalkeeper, with the striker a matter of inches away from getting his studs on the end of it as the Crues’ defenders stood watching.
The game quietened down a little midway through the second half. Crusaders had their first shot on target after 51 minutes when a sweeping shot from Ross Clarke was saved comfortably by Chris Johns. The Crues did improve slightly following the half-time introduction of a centre forward, Adam Lecky, but Linfield always felt in full control.
Stephen Baxter’s men’s only real proper chance of the night came after 73 minutes when Adam Lecky caused trouble in the Linfield box with his clever movement and hold-up play. He worked the ball to Jarlath O’Rourke who teed up Crusaders’ star man Ben Kennedy whose shot from inside the box struck the post.
Darragh McBrien and Matthew Fitzpatrick both almost put the game beyond any doubt in the closing ten minutes. Substitute McBrien was sent away by Chris Shields on the break and he used his pace to get a shot off which drew another excellent save from Tuffey to push it around the post. Fitzpatrick headed just wide from a deep cross from Kirk Millar, however the Blues held on fairly comfortably for a valuable three points.
The Blues failed to win any of their four league meetings with the Crues last season, and this played a part in an overall record against top six opposition that wasn’t quite up to the standard they’d have hoped for last season. With that in mind, this win – along with wins against Cliftonville and Coleraine early in the season – can serve as a great phycological boost.
Full Time: Linfield 2 – 0 Crusaders
Attendance – 2999
LinfieldFC.com Man of the Match: Chris Shields