Crusaders 2 Institute 0
Stephen Baxter's Crusaders last night swatted away the challenge of Institute at Seaview to book their slot in the final of the BetMcLean League Cup.
The Crues were much too slick on a night when atmosphere was in short supply in north Belfast, but goals from David Cushley and Jordan Forsythe were enough to earn Baxter's team their spot in the February 15 showpiece decider against Coleraine.
It was a night to forget for the visitors. Their chances of salvaging anything from the game went down the tubes just after the hour when striker Joe McCready was shown a straight red card by referee Jamie Robinson after stamping on Crues skipper Colin Coates.
Crues boss Baxter made three changes to the team that hammered in six goals against Dungannon Swifts at the weekend with Cushley and Forsythe replacing the injured Jordan Owens and Rory Hale, while Sean O'Neill took over from Gerard Doherty in goals.
After watching his side dump Coleraine from the top of the league table at the weekend, Institute manager Sean Connor decided to reshuffle his deck, drafting in goalkeeper Paul Wells, Ryan Morrow, Dean Curry, Niall Grace and Aidan McCauley.
Defender Colm McLaughlin should have had the visitors in front after only three minutes. He got up above everyone else to meet a cross from Morrow, but could only arrow his header wide.
The Crues responded with Philip Lowry sending Ross Clarke hurtling down the right but, after cutting inside, he could only pull his shot past the post.
Connor's team were certainly not overawed by the occasion and Gareth Brown tried his luck with an audacious effort from distance on 14 minutes that flashed over the top.
But the Crues, with Clarke beginning to cause havoc on the flank, threatened again with the former Linfield man stinging the hands of Wells with a blockbuster from the edge of the box.
Then, on 19 minutes, Paul Heatley whipped in a great cross from the left that was met by the head of Cushley, but his effort failed to trouble Wells.
The Crues were beginning to turn the screw and were right out of luck just after the half-hour. Cushley's corner-kick was met by Coates, but his downward header was smuggled off the line by Morrow.
Jamie McGonigle then held his head in frustration when his blistering left-footed drive was beaten to safety by Wells after he was sent free by a wonderful pass from Forsythe.
Coates thought he had opened the scoring on 35 minutes when he met a McGonigle corner-kick only to see his header crash off the inside of the post and bounce to safety, although the skipper was convinced the ball had crossed the line.
Baxter's side had better luck two minutes later. Cushley gobbled up a superb pass from the inspirational Clarke and, having spotted Wells leaving his line, he cleverly curled the ball into the bottom corner.
Institute had Wells to thank for keeping them in the game four minutes later. The in-form shot-stopper was out like a flash to deny Heatley following a defence-splitting pass from Cushley.
The Crues were out of sight seven minutes after the break. Clarke's corner-kick was cleared to Forsythe on the edge of the box and his wicked volley ballooned the net before Wells could even move.
Heatley almost added a third on 72 minutes, but again Wells earned his wages by somehow flicking the forward's ripping shot over the crossbar.
In a subdued second half, Clarke almost got the goal his display deserved only to see his shot rock the post.
CRUSADERS: O'Neill, Burns, Beverland, Coates, Lowry, McGonigle, Cushley (McGinley 85), Forsythe (Thompson 78), O'Rourke, Heatley(McElroy 79), Clarke.
Unused subs: Doherty, Hegarty, Caddell, Ruddy.
INSTITUTE: Wells, Morrow, McLaughlin, D Curry (McNamee 54), Grace (Leppard 73), Tourish, G Brown (Burke 78), McCready, McCauley, Tweed, Crown.
Unused subs: R Brown, S Curry, J Morrow, Bradley.
Match rating: 6/10
Man of the match: Ross Clarke
Referee: Jamie Robinson