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I fear congratulating Linfield, admits Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter

Linfield 1 Crusaders 0

By Graham Luney

In his grim post-match assessment of his side's performance at Windsor Park on Saturday, Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter even raised the prospect of him picking up the phone and congratulating David Healy on Linfield's title success.

Baxter still hopes his men can quickly find some inspiration to get across the line first in their mission to win three consecutive championships but the very fact he made any reference to such a conversation underlines his growing alarm at the form of the champions.

Outfought and outclassed by a Linfield side who are now only a point behind with four games remaining, the Seaview boss is scratching his head wondering how his troops can misfire so badly with the finishing line coming into view.

The Blues have momentum, the Crues have wounded pride and in the biggest game of their season they went missing.

Aaron Burns' 21st minute goal won the game and it was a deserved success. Linfield are playing like a side full of hunger and confidence. Crusaders looked nervous and lost the physical battle.

"Men against boys," was how Baxter summed it up and he was being polite.

All this means that the title race has just got very interesting and could go right to the death.

Linfield, chasing their first championship win since 2012, are finding that fortune is favouring the brave and this victory really does bring into sharp focus what mental toughness is left on the Shore Road.

"We were hopeless," admitted Baxter.

"Now we have four big games coming up. The only consolation we can dig out is that we are one point ahead. It's still in our hands and we have to find the character to go and do this. Irrespective of who was missing like Colin Coates and Jordan Owens, if players can look me in the eye and say I've given you everything and done my job then it will always be good enough for me, win, lose or draw.

"If we don't get what we need and Linfield win it I'll be the first to ring David Healy and congratulate him on that title because he did that to me last year.

"That is the cut and thrust of football at the very top of this game.

"We have charged at this for a long time and one or two injuries are catching up with us, but we have to search deep within our souls to get over the line and we will try to do that. If we don't do it, we'll tip our hat to who does."

The Crues could do with an injection of self-belief and a new vibrant attacking approach might see the title pendulum swing back in their favour.

Baxter added: "You can only ask your players to go and do it. If we rise up to that challenge we have got the players capable of doing it. We have goalscorers in the team but we need to get our mojo back. It has looked in the last few weeks like we have been defending a lead and in my book, you've got to go and try to win something, try to achieve it as it won't be handed to you. You must find it, I'm confident but we have to get everyone feeling that."

Linfield manager David Healy was fiercely proud of his players and while he says Crusaders are still favourites with their one point advantage, Northern Ireland's record goalscorer is daring to dream at Windsor Park.

"Everyone has questioned the players," said Healy. "It was claimed they weren't mentally strong enough but they have proved over the last two or three months that they have got plenty of courage and fighting spirit.

"We will see where that takes us though we are still underdogs. I'm not thinking of a double but I might have a double tonight," he joked.

LINFIELD: Carroll, Casement (Ward, 85 mins), Haughey, Callacher, M Clarke, Smyth (Millar, 88 mins), Mulgrew, Lowry, Quinn, Burns, Waterworth. Unused subs: Carson, Gaynor, Strain.

Crusaders : O'Neill, Mitchell (Clarke, 85 mins), Burns, Beverland, McClean, Caddell, Lowry (Cushley, 27 mins), Forsythe, Carvill, Heatley, Whyte (Suarez, 76 mins). Unused subs: Dougherty, Brown.

Referee: Ian McNabb (Newtownabbey)

Man of the match: Aaron Burns

Match rating: 6/10

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