Crusaders 0 Linfield 1: Robert Garrett’s blistering strike four minutes from time settled this tense Seaview showdown — and could well have decided this season’s title race.
David Jeffrey’s champions extended their lead at the top of the table to three points with a game in hand as Crusaders for once failed to deliver when it mattered most.
Having won 10 games on the spin, they will be bitterly disappointed to have frozen in the second-half which handed the Blues the impetus.
With the game seemingly destined for a goalless draw, it was always going to take something special to seal the points and Garrett produced it.
Substitute Michael Carvill cut the ball back after a good run four minutes from time and the ball fell into Garrett’s path and he smashed past keeper Chris Keenan from 16 yards.
Unfortunately, ugly scenes between Jamie Mulgrew and Colin Coates, as well as Jeffrey and a steward marred the occasion, and there could well be further ramifications.
On the pitch, and the opening exchanges were frantic and frenzied as so often happens in a tussle of this magnitude.
Any time a player got time on the ball, more often than not they hit the deck soon after under a crunching challenge, some fair, many not but always fierce and feisty with the Crues’ Chris Morrow and Garrett cautioned in the opening 14 minutes while others got away with cynical infringements.
By the time those players found their way into referee David Malcolm’s book, the Hatchetmen could have been a goal to the good.
A poor clearance by Stephen Douglas in the Linfield penalty area fell to David McMaster, and when his shot was blocked, the ball fell to Stuart Dallas but after having to have a touch to control the high ball, he fired over the bar.
Billy Joe Burns replaced the injured Damien Curran after he fell awkwardly but the change didn’t hinder the visitors.
After tentatively knocking on the door in the opening 10 min
utes, Peter Thompson had the first clear sight of goal.
Chris Keenan failed to get off his line, putting Gareth McKeown in trouble and when the full-back only headed to the former Northern Ireland striker but he couldn’t adjust his body to get over the ball and fired over the top.
As the game progress in front of a jam-packed Seaview — well three side of it any way due to Health and Safety restrictions — it was the home side who posed the threat and every time the outstanding player of the season, Dallas, got on the ball, he was faced with at least two blue shirts in his path.
But for all their plotting and possession, the Crues, roared on by a boisterous crowd, couldn’t carve out a clear-cut chance as the tackles continued to fly and they almost paid the price on 36 minutes.
Jim Ervin deep cross from the right again found Keenan wanting and Mark McAllister was left alone six yards from goal at an angle but he somehow managed to direct his header across goal, onto the outside of the post with the goal at his mercy.
Thompson took the ball off McAllister’s toes a minute before the break after a quick break but less than 60 seconds later the former Dungannon Swifts hitman did get the ball on the edge of the box before firing narrowly wide.
After the break, the Crues huffed and puffed with little urgency or cohesion. The Blues, on
the over hand, were given time and space to play. Baxter’s troops barked more than they bit and as a result, their tempo dropped, along with the atmosphere which was a cauldron of noise before.
The game was certainly suffering for it — even the managers seemed more like chess enthusiasts in the zone than WWE wrestling opponents panting and ranting on the touchline.
When a chance finally came after the interval, it fell to the Blues when Thompson cut inside McKeown and when Aiden Watson slid in to nick the ball, he only diverted it goalwards but David Magowan hammered off the line.
Garrett had a shot blocked by Coates as the Linfield seemed the most likely to break the monotony and a goal looked like it would never arrive.
But Garrett’s late strike ensured that there would be a winner in the match and, perhaps, the title.
CRUSADERS: Keenan, McKeown, Magowan, Coates, McBride (Halliday 88), McMaster (Sweeney 61), Watson, Morrow, Dallas, Caddell (Cassidy 88), Owens. Subs not used: Donnelly, Magee.
LINFIELD: Blayney, Ervin, Douglas, Murphy, Curran (Burns 8), Garrett, Gault, Mulgrew, Tomelty (Carvill 81), Thompson, McAllister. Subs not used: Lowry, Bailie, Allen.
Referee: David Malcolm (Bangor).