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Linfield now in mood to hit front

Crusaders 1 Linfield 2

By Graham Luney

Linfield won the last battle of 2016, they must now win the war in 2017.

They've got momentum and belief and only time will tell whether Crusaders can handle the pressure.

The Blues had to produce something special on the Shore Road to reignite their title challenge and they passed the test, with first-half goals from Aaron Burns and Andy Waterworth cutting the champions' lead to four points.

Four points is nothing when there are 45 left to play for.

Jordan Owens' close range header threatened a comeback but this was a show of steel and spirit from the Windsor Park men, who must now back it up by winning at home to Coleraine tomorrow night.

Midfielder Stephen Lowry, who shone in the middle of the feisty affair, says he's relieved the players showed they can mix it with, and even conquer, the best on their home patch.

"We picked up a lot of second balls and our passing was good," said the former Coleraine ace. "The team put the ball in the back of the net and we needed our strikers to do that because our defenders have been chipping in with goals. The pressure was on us all to deliver in these big matches and it's about time we did it. We knew we were capable of it but to do it was long overdue and the title race will now be interesting.

"Ten points would have been a big lead and, if I'm being honest, it could have been the league over but we are still disappointed we are four points behind.

"We have been playing well this season and our form has been good but we need to close the gap further.

"We have another game against Coleraine on Tuesday night and we will miss Jamie (Mulgrew) through suspension but we will need three points."

Mulgrew was sent off after both sets of players became involved in a heated exchange which kicked off when Blues boss David Healy couldn't contain his eagerness to join the action. Healy, who also saw red, was spat at by someone in the crowd during the unsavoury incident but, while the game was fiercely competitive, the players largely kept their discipline.

"It was my head injury that happened just before the melee, then it all kicked off," reflected Lowry, whose brother Philip was a second-half substitute for the Crues.

"The manager lost his temper but we always seem to be on the wrong end of decisions. I was sent off here last season but the lads showed a lot of character. It keeps the title race interesting and we fancy ourselves to kick on from here and put Crusaders under pressure all the way."

Lowry went into battle nursing a wounded foot but the victory helped numb the pain.

"I have a sore toe and I've been nursing it the last two weeks," he says.

Linfield now have a foothold back in the title race but they still have to prove they can last the pace. Crusaders didn't quite make it to the end of the year as an unbeaten force at Seaview in the Danske Bank Premiership but they remain in the driving seat.

"There's a long way to go and it will be a bigger test for us on Tuesday night," said Crues boss Stephen Baxter, whose side face Ards. The race is still alive.

CRUSADERS: O'Neill, Burns, Beverland, Gault, McClean (Mitchell, 90 mins), Caddell (Lowry, 54 mins), Forsythe, Carvill (Cushley, 46 mins), Owens, Heatley, Whyte. Unused subs: Clarke, Dougherty.

LINFIELD: Carroll, Stafford, Haughey, Callacher, Waterworth (Stewart, 89 mins), Lowry, Burns, Clarke, Mulgrew, Frazer (Casement, 63 mins), Quinn. Unused subs: Bright, Millar, Fallon.

Referee: Raymond Hetherington (Dungannon)

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