Linfield fire out title alert
Linfield 2 Crusaders 0
Linfield recorded an important victory in the title race against Crusaders last night but Peter Thompson’s first half dismissal took some of the gloss off the win.
Belfast referee Colin Burns, who failed to win many friends among the home support, accused Thommo of flinging an arm at Colin Coates in added time at the end of the half but the Blues’ anger was diluted by a scoreline which fired them to the front of the championship race.
Philip Lowry’s fifth goal of the season in the 41st minute broke the deadlock and Curtis Allen’s 55th minute spot-kick settled nerves.
Linfield fans felt that Burns was lenient on the visitors, letting some heavy challenges go unpunished, but David Jeffrey’s side at least proved they are still up for the title fight.
Yellow cards were shown to Colin Coates, Jordan Owens, Stephen McBride, Chris Morrow and David Magowan though the Blues faithful were crying out for Owens to be shown red after his part in a first half shoving match.
That brawl started after Coates and Thompson clashed in the middle but the striker’s yellow card was soon forgotten when he saw red after renewing hostilities with the Crues skipper.
Jeffrey, clearly still smarting from his side’s 4-2 defeat at home to Coleraine, started this contest with a completely new backline, with Noel Bailie and Kris Lindsay occupying the heart of the defence.
Crusaders were without the injured David Rainey or Mark Dickson, with County Antrim Shield hero Owens asked to do the running in front of a packed midfield.
The Blues started on the front foot and Magowan had to make a perfectly timed intervention to clear a dangerous cross from Billy Joe Burns.
Michael Carvill, who saw red in the Shield final, twice came close to opening the scoring but both his drives fizzed wide of the upright.
Goalkeeper Alan Blayney easily gathered a long range free-kick from Martin Donnelly but it was the home side who should have struck first in the 29th minute. Robbie Garrett blazed his shot over the bar when Carvill was well placed to run in on goal.
A minute later, what had been a forgettable spectacle exploded into life when tempers flared. Coates clashed with Thompson on the ground and the altercation sparked a brawl with several players exchanging blows. Referee Burns, though, only elected to show yellow cards to Thompson and Owens.
Four minutes before the break the Blues got the breakthrough. Garrett’s left wing free-kick was flicked on and Lowry was left unmarked at the back post to blast the ball into the roof of the net.
Seconds later Linfield shouts for a penalty were rejected after goalkeeper Chris Keenan appeared to bundle into Carvill, forcing the striker to hit the ground.
But just before the interval, the referee did locate a red card in his pocket, brandishing one to Thompson, accusing the striker of catching Coates’ head with his elbow.
The home fans were incensed by the decision, feeling that Crusaders players were fortunate to escape similar punishment, particularly during the brawl.
Crusaders were hoping to make their numerical advantage count but they were floored again in the 54th minute. Gareth McKeown tripped Mulgrew in the box and Allen sent Keenan the wrong way from the spot.
Substitute Mark McAllister missed the opportunity to place icing on the cake in the final minute when his low shot lacked pace and went straight to Keenan.
Stephen Baxter’s side failed to trouble the Blues after the break and the Shore Road men have serious work to do if they hope to cling to any title dream.
But Linfield came out of this bruising encounter clutching a very precious three points.
LINFIELD: Blayney, Lowry, Thompson, Carvill, Bailie, BJ Burns (Casement 86), Lindsay, Allen (McAllister 76), Garrett, Mulgrew, Gallagher (A Burns 91). Subs not used: Gault, Curran.
CRUSADERS: Keenan, McKeown, McBride, Doherty, Magowan, Coates (McMaster 62), Morrow (McCann 68), Collins (Arthurs 50), Owens, Caddell, Donnelly. Subs not used: Magee, Hogg.
Referee: Colin Burns (Belfast).