Linfield are Christmas Number 1. The Blues will be top of the tree at Christmas after starting the festive period positively tonight with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Coleraine at Windsor Park in very wet and windy conditions.
With Jamie Mulgrew joining an extensive injury list due to the effects of two rough challenges on him in the space of eight days, David Healy made two changes to the team that defeated Glenavon 2-0 at Mourneview Park last weekend. Josh Archer came in to replace the captain, whilst Joel Cooper missed out through suspension having picked up a fifth booking towards the end of last week’s match, and so a first start was handed to 17-year-old Aodhan Doherty, a deserving recipient following several impressive substitute appearances.
Coleraine came into the match in poor form, with one win in their last seven matches in all competitions, and Bannsiders’ boss Oran Kearney asked his team to show character following a late collapse against Dungannon Swifts last week when they conceded in the 88th and 91st minute to lose 3-2.
On the other hand, Linfield were continuing to push on despite their thin squad, and the Blues made it four consecutive wins following their bitterly disappointing 4-0 defeat against Glentoran at the beginning of December. The Blues were forced into a late change which meant a change of formation, and a lot of their good work on the training pitch during the week became somewhat wasted.
Tonight’s match was a slow-burner. Coleraine, like Linfield, have an extensive absentee list of their own, and that – along with the strong wind – perhaps is why the first half was such a dull affair. The Blues dominated the ball, but Coleraine defended well in open play and looked to break on the counter-attack, with highly-rated 17-year-old Ciaran O’Hara leading the line after scoring in his first start against Loughgall a fortnight ago.
Clear-cut chances were at a premium in the first half. The best one fell for 19-year-old Linfield forward Rhys Annett shortly after the half-hour mark. A neat move saw Euan East clip a through ball into the top left corner of the pitch and Matthew Clarke did well to reach it, and did even better with a first-time cross which was pinpoint for Rhys Annett inside the box, but the forward lashed a left-footed volley over the crossbar. Although he was unmarked and in a good position, it was a tough technique on his weaker side, to try and get his knee over it.
Young winger Aodhan Doherty also went close towards the end of the first half when he was picked out just inside the box from a short corner, and after working room to get a shot off he saw an effort well saved by Gareth Deane at his near post. Matthew Fitzpatrick got on the rebound but fired over and the linesman’s flag spared his blushes.
The closest Coleraine came to scoring in the first half was when the lively Conor McKendry swept a lovely dipping shot towards goal from around 25 yards and it flashed just over the crossbar, onto the roof of Chris Johns’ net.
HT: Linfield 0-0 Coleraine
The second half was a much more entertaining half. Having failed to record a shot on target in the first half, Coleraine almost took the lead a minute into the second half. A move down the left saw full-back Dean Jarvis whip in a dangerous cross which was met by Andy Scott who got in front of his man to meet it on the volley and he was unfortunate to see his powerful strike come back off the crossbar. As the ball rebounded, Chris Johns got a touch on it which may well have denied Coleraine’s Jack O’Mahoney a certain goal as he looked well placed to strike a rebound otherwise.
At times the second half became a little bit stretched due to Linfield wanting to get at Coleraine, whilst that provided more opportunities for the Bannsiders to break. The Blues carved out a decent opportunity seven minutes into the second half from a nice move down the left as Kirk Millar slipped in the overlapping Matthew Clarke whose cross was only half cleared, landing kindly for Aodhan Doherty who volleyed wide with his weaker right foot.
Doherty then created an opportunity by driving forward and fizzing the ball into Rhys Annett who turned brilliantly before curling a strike just wide of the upright and the Blues started to up the ante.
The breakthrough arrived on 65 minutes as Linfield took the lead. It came from a corner as Matthew Clarke whipped the ball to the near post area where Scotsman, Euan East got across his man to nod in a well-taken glancing header into the far corner for his second goal for the Blues since joining at the end of August after leaving Queen of the South.
As has happened often this season, the Blues soon added a quickfire second. It was very similar to the opener as Matthew Clarke put in another excellent corner delivery to the near post, only this time it was attacked by several bodies on each side, and it seemed to come through untouched to the unmarked Rhys Annett who was instinctive to be in the right place for an easy tap in, making it four goals in three matches for the in-form teenager who signed from Dundela just under a year ago.
The Blues almost added a third goal a short time later following a short corner where Kirk Millar exchanged passes with Darragh McBrien before teeing up Kyle McClean whose low shot from inside the box was well saved by former Linfield ‘keeper Gareth Deane with his foot.
The Bannsiders’ ‘keeper then made a top class save to deny Matthew Fitzpatrick who got a glancing header on a cross from Kyle McClean, only to see his header somehow tipped over the crossbar. A short time later, ‘Fitzy’ also got his head on another Matthew Clarke corner but his header flashed wide of the post, and he’ll be disappointed he didn’t score despite many positives elements in his all-round performance.
Coleraine grabbed a lifeline in the 85th minute from a deep free-kick delivered by Conor McKendry as striker Andrew Mitchell got in front of Ben Hall to meet the delivery at the back post before bundling the ball over the line at the second attempt following Chris Johns’ initial save.
The Blues kept the ball well for the majority of the remaining five minutes plus an additional four minutes of stoppage time, though Coleraine carved out one opportunity in the final minute as Conor McKendry crossed from the right and Andrew Mitchell again got himself on the end of it, but his glancing header flashed wide.
David Healy’s men sit a point clear at the top this Christmas and have a game in hand over second-place Larne. The Blues have a tough and hectic festive fixture list ahead in the next ten days but can only take each game as it comes and therefore full focus now is on the traditional Boxing Day derby at Windsor Park in front of a sold-out crowd, for which the Blues will welcome Joel Cooper back from suspension and hopefully, possibly one or two back from injury, too.
FT: Linfield 2-1 Coleraine
Linfieldfc.com Man of the Match: Rhys Annett
Written by Jamie Megarry