The race for the JJB Sports Premiership really is proving to be one of the best in living memory.
Crusaders may not be crowned champions come the end of the season but Stephen Baxter’s men will play a huge part in the destiny of the Gibson Cup.
Linfield’s goalless draw against the Hatchetmen last night means the champions are now two points clear of Glentoran, who won at Cliftonville, but the east Belfast men now have a vital game in hand.
Kevin McHugh, who once again kept big-money signing Mark McAllister kicking his heels on the substitutes’ bench, had the first chance of the game on six minutes.
The former Derry City man drove in from the right side of the penalty area after a Glenn Ferguson flick-on but his fierce, low strike was blocked by the body of Crues keeper Aaron Kerr.
On 10 minutes however he forced Alan Mannus into his first comfortable save of the night with a low shot from the edge of the box and then turned provider for Declan Caddell who also found the thankful keeper’s arms.
The Crues certainly looked confident every time they ventured in the final third of the pitch and they missed a glorious to open the scoring on 14 minutes.
Caddell, who showed lively touches going forward, lobbed the ball over the Blues defence to the onrushing Stevie Coutler and with the off-side trap beaten, he clipped the ball over Mannus but wide of target.
Two minutes later, the home side were caught cold again, this time Mannus pulled off a stunning diving save to push Gareth McKeown’s powerful header from 12 yards around the post.
John Martin curled a teasing cross beyond the Crues defence on 24 minutes only for McHugh to take the ball off Ferguson’s head and fluff his own effort.
A minute later McHugh returned the compliment, squaring from the left but Crues keeper Kerr blocked the side-foot strike from close range with his feet.
The game then exploded into life thanks to a flurry of chances and yellow cards.
Douglas was teed up by Ferguson on 75 minutes and his strike from 25 yards took a deflected off Coulter before bouncing off the base of Kerr’s post and Stephen McBride was right on hand to clear.
A minute later, Crues unsung hero David Magowan made a last-ditch challenge to thwart McAllister with the hitman in on goal.
Robert Garrett went into the referee’s book for a rash challenge minutes later but despite his best efforts, Coulter escaped a caution for dissent.
As it seemed only a matter of time before Linfield would grab the elusive goal, Owens blew the chance of the match for the visitors when he scuffed a close range shot horribly wide after good work from Dickson.
Seven minutes from time the Hatchetmen had another chance to claim their first win of the season over the champions but this time Gault got back to steal the ball off the toes of both Caddell and Coutler.
It was a terrific finish but in the end neither side could force a winner.
LINFIELD: Mannus, Hagan, Douglas, Murphy, Gallagher, Martin (Tomelty 56), Garrett, Gault, Carvill, Ferguson, McHugh (McAllister 56). Subs not used: Harkness, Bailie, Munster.
CRUSADERS: Kerr, McKeown, Magowan, Smyth, McBride, Coulter, Caddell (Emerson 90), Doherty, Marks (Owens 56), Dickson, Rainey. Subs not used: Keenan, Hargan, Arthurs.
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast)