It's D-Day for the Blues
Linfield have to exorcise Crusaders ghost to keep the title dream alive
It's put up or shut up time at Linfield. If the Blues are going to be taken seriously as title contenders, the players are going to have to deliver against Crusaders on New Year's Day.
David Healy's side now have some momentum behind them after winning three games on the bounce and recording big Premiership victories against Ballymena United and Glentoran.
The feelgood factor has returned at Windsor Park going into 2016, but imagine if the Blues lost to the Crues on Friday. They would then be 12 points behind the champions and Stephen Baxter's men have played a game less.
I think most people who have watched Crusaders this season would say that Linfield's title dream would then be sinking fast.
In the past few seasons Crusaders have bullied Linfield and the Blues have lacked the fighting spirit or mental strength when it mattered.
It's one thing beating Ballymena United or Glentoran, but Crusaders are on a 20-match unbeaten run in the league and are the real benchmark as far as title hopefuls are concerned.
Perhaps a few doubts are entering the minds of Crusaders players after they squandered a two-goal lead against Cliftonville. They failed to get the win which would have seen them place one hand on the Gibson Cup.
Linfield must now take this golden opportunity.
The players need to show their character and display the belief that they can win the title. They need to prove they are worthy of the shirt and that they belong on the big stage. They need to prove that to the fans and their manager.
The good news for Linfield is that the Crusaders defence know they face a winter storm at Windsor.
Suddenly, there are two pacy frontmen keen to inflict damage.
Andy Waterworth's strengths are well known. Now there's a new predator in the sea.
During Linfield's bleak November David will have looked at the whole infrastructure of the club - including the youth ranks - and what he saw was this pacy, lively teenager called Paul Smyth who was eager to impress.
A bit like Leicester City's Jamie Vardy, he's a real livewire who won't let defenders rest and David has thought 'this kid is good enough so I'm showing faith in him'.
Paul has responded magnificently and scoring his first Linfield goal in a Big Two Boxing Day derby at The Oval is the stuff of dreams.
He hasn't let David down and if I was Paul's father I'd be thinking how lucky is my boy, working with a Northern Ireland legend at a club the size of Linfield!
He's a player who gets you on your feet and wants to make things happen. The Linfield coaches clearly felt he was ready to make his mark. The Crues back four will now stand up and take notice and I've noticed Linfield players running to David after scoring in recent matches; that says a lot about team spirit and togetherness.
Defeat is not an option on Friday for them, but with Sean Ward moving into midfield, the defence looking more solid and the young kid Smyth seizing his chance up front the picture is looking a lot better for the Blues and a big win over Crusaders could drag them back into the title hunt.