Linfield could rue blunder
Linfield 1 Crusaders 1: Linfield manager David Jeffrey resisted pointing the finger of blame at keeper Jonny Tuffey who gifted Crusaders an equaliser in this Windsor Park stalemate.
Michael Carvill's stunning free-kick in the 26th minute opened the scoring, but Tuffey made a hash of Chris Morrow's set-piece in first half stoppage time, allowing Jordan Owens to poke in the equaliser.
After the break Crues keeper Sean O'Neill made two impressive saves to foil Andy Waterworth, leaving the Blues to reflect on two points dropped after Tuffey's lapse in concentration.
Jeffrey said: "I wanted my own players to stand up to the physical nature of the way Crusaders play and I thought we did that very well.
"Jonny Tuffey made two wonder saves, especially the one from Andy Smith, but there was no place to hide for him when the slippery ball came his way in a crowded penalty area.
"I said to Jonny at half-time you think of those saves including your performance against Dergview. He has been producing professional and competent performances for us, but he's his own fiercest critic.
"It was probably a case of him thinking ahead about what he was going to do before the ball was caught cleanly. Overall I felt that if we had taken our chances we would have got three points, but our recent performances have been encouraging as we have stood up to challenges."
The Crues are now unbeaten in 10 matches against Linfield and Seaview chief Stephen Baxter felt the free-kick awarded to Linfield which led to the opener should not have been given.
"I felt Colin Coates won the ball cleanly," he said.
"Andy Waterworth's momentum made him fall over. A yellow card was produced and I said to the officials these are massive decisions in massive matches.
"They all agree with me so I don't know why we talk to fourth officials. It's like that in England too. It's a double whammy as the goal is scored, but our players gave an honest shift and I felt a draw was a fair result. Jonny's save from Andy Smith was a wonder save. It was a real battle of the titans with superb energy from the players."
Before the game there was an impeccably observed minute's silence in tribute to Linfield Trustee Billy Meikle.
Meikle, whose nephew is former Linfield winger Mark Picking, passed away suddenly in Spain on Monday night.
Fans would have expected a feisty clash between the two Premiership heavyweights and Michael Gault's crunching early tackle on David Magowan went unpunished.
The Blues endured a nervous moment in the third minute when Tuffey sprung off his line to tip a dangerous Andy Smith volley over the bar.
Five minutes later the Crues had a let off when Philip Lowry should have hit the target from 10 yards but screwed his shot wide.
Returning Crues skipper Coates was booked for a sliding challenge on Waterworth, but the worst punishment was to come.
From the resulting free-kick in the 26th minute, Carvill curled his shot beyond the defensive wall and just inside the post as O'Neill struggled to get across the line.
It was a sweet finish, struck with impressive power and accuracy.
Referee Arnold Hunter took a dim view of several challenges, booking Ivan Sproule for a heavy shoulder charge on Smith and showing Declan Caddell a yellow card after colliding with Sean Ward.
Crusaders had struggled to penetrate the home defence but they were gifted the equaliser a minute into first-half stoppage time.
Tuffey spilled a Morrow free-kick and Owens tapped the ball over the line. The Blues number one cursed his misfortune while Owens couldn't believe his luck. Tuffey's concentration disappeared at the vital moment and Owens didn't need a second invite to apply the simple finish.
The Blues carved out the first chance after the restart, but O'Neill deflected away Carvill's angled drive.
The Crues keeper then made two crucial blocks within a minute to deny Waterworth who was bearing down on goal. Blues fans felt Paul Leeman was tugging him back during the first chance, but referee Hunter waved play on.
In the 61st minute Owens let fly from distance, but his shot was tipped over by Tuffey, while at the other end Aaron Burns' glancing header beat the post by a foot.
Paul Heatley blasted a shot just wide of the post, then Gault produced a superb block to deny substitute Timmy Adamson.
Honours even with second placed Cliftonville the big winners.
Linfield: Tuffey, Gault, Haughey, Waterworth, Lowry, Carvill (Mulgrew 59), B.J. Burns, A. Burns, Ward, Sproule (Thompson 87), Quinn. Subs (not used): McVey, M. Clarke, Tipton.
Crusaders: O'Neill, Magowan, Coates, McClean, Morrow (Watson 70), Caddell, Leeman, Robinson, Smith (Adamson 64), Owens, Heatley. Subs (not used): E. McAllister, Hanley, McCutcheon.
Referee: Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge).