Linfield 0 Crusaders 1
Jordan Owens added to Linfield’s woes as he fired holders Crusaders into a second successive IRN-BRU League Cup final.
His second-half goal set up a north-Belfast derby decider in the New Year and sent the sorry Blues crashing out.
On an awkward night for every player on the icy pitch, Owen’s strike ensured there was a frosty reception for Blues boss David Jeffrey at the final whistle.
With his team languishing 14 points behind leaders Cliftonville in the Premiership it was yet another night to forget for the Windsor Park men, as the Irish Cup now seems the only realistic chance they have of silverware this season, after six doubles in the previous seven years.
Despite the pitch being frozen in several areas, including both penalty areas, referee Mark Courtney surprisingly passed it playable.
From the first minute, however, players from both sides were struggling to keep their feet as turning on the frosted surface made it more dancing on ice than a bowling green for football.
Stephen Baxter’s men threatened first when Doncaster Rovers target Josh Robinson crossed into the penalty area where the Crues had four attacking the ball and the Blues were given a huge slice of luck when Timmy Adamson’s shot struck Albert Watson on the hand, as referee Courtney waved play on.
At the other end, six minutes later, Philip Lowry weaved his way into the box before angling a shot across goal which was smartly held by Sean O’Neill on the rock hard pitch.
The Blues were almost caught out soon after when Blayney charged off his line and when William Murphy headed on the edge of the box, Paul Heatley lobbed wide of goal.
Robinson, playing in midfield, showed quick feet to get away from Michael Carvill and skidded a long-range drive goalwards which Blayney got his body behind as clear-cut chances were at a premium.
It always looked as though it was going to take a moment of magic or a glaring mistake to force the opener, but both sides remained firm at the back.
Seven minutes before the break, Mulgrew’s persistence took him away from the Crues backline, but his shot was beaten away two-handed by O’Neill.
Crues skipper, Colin Coates, could perhaps have done better with a snap-shot 15 yards from goal, but it flew just wide of the target.
Linfield threatened seconds after the interval when Mulgrew’s cross from the right flank and Peter Thompson planted a header onto the bar. The ex-Northern Ireland striker simply can’t buy a goal at the minute.
Blayney then came to Linfield’s rescue on 50 minutes when he not only dived to his left to stop a rasping Robinson free-kick, but he somehow managed to hold on to it.
On 64 minutes came the moment the game desperately needed. The lively Heatley slipped the ball through to the rampaging Owens who kept his feet while running at pace before blasting the ball past Blayney.
Four minutes later it could have been double trouble for the Blues when Heatley’s cross from close to the by-line was smashed into the net by Adamson — but the referee’s assistant instantly had his flag up to chalk the goal off.
And it didn’t end there as the Crues continued to batter the Blues’ goal. Declan Caddell was released on the right and crossed to the back post, but Heatley’s acrobatic strike was off target with Gary McCutcheon better place in the centre.
In the end it didn’t matter as the Crues deservedly booked their place in the final What an occasion that should be.
LINFIELD: Blayney, Ervin (Fordyce 85), Watson, Murphy, Burns, Lowry (Clarke 73), Mulgrew, Gault, Carvill, Thompson, Browne (Tipton 73). Subs not used: Garrett, McCaul.
CRUSADERS: O’Neill, McKeown, Magowan, Coates, McClean, Adamson, Caddell (Watson 78), Robinson, Heatley, Owens, McCutcheon (Leeman 90). Subs not used: McBride, Rainey, McMaster.
Referee: Mark Courtney (Dungannon).