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Callacher at the double as Linfield deal Crusaders title bid real blow

Linfield 4

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Linfield's Jimmy Callacher pictured after scoring his team's third goal during this evening's game at Windsor Park in Belfast. Picture By: Arthur Allison. Pacemaker Press.

Linfield's Jimmy Callacher pictured after scoring his team's third goal during this evening's game at Windsor Park in Belfast. Picture By: Arthur Allison. Pacemaker Press.

Linfield's Jimmy Callacher pictured after scoring his team's third goal during this evening's game at Windsor Park in Belfast. Picture By: Arthur Allison. Pacemaker Press.

Linfield have taken a firm grip on the Irish League title race. Last month, serious questions were being asked of David Healy's side. In February, they have found all the answers.

The Blues have moved NINE points clear at the top of the table after making it four wins out of four in the Danske Bank Premiership, the latest coming at home to Crusaders.

Defender Jimmy Callacher headed in a double - one in each half - with Andy Waterworth and Stephen Fallon also on target to give the champions an important victory against one of their chief rivals for glory.

The Crues (55 points) are now ELEVEN behind the Blues (66). Stephen Baxter's side have a game in hand but that is a long, long way back with games running out.

Glentoran (57) and Coleraine (56) have an opportunity to bridge the gap today when they travel to Glenavon and Institute respectively, while Cliftonville (54) will try to stay in the hunt against Ballymena United. No doubt about it, though - Linfield are the team in control of the chase.

They were expected to overcome Dungannon, Warrenpoint and Ballymena in their previous league games but the Friday night encounter with Crusaders was billed as a severe test.

Following an edgy first period in the swirling wind, Healy's team blew the Hatchetmen away in the second half. While Crusaders, who had Howard Beverland red-carded late on, failed to take their chances, Linfield were clinical.

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Before the match there was a minute's applause for the great Harry Gregg, whose funeral had taken place earlier in the day.

Gregg had started his illustrious career at Linfield and of course starred for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park.

The Blues made one change to the starting line-up that won 4-1 at Ballymena United on their last outing with influential captain Jamie Mulgrew replacing the injured Kyle McClean in midfield.

For the Crues, there were three switches to the side that kicked off in their 2-1 defeat to Coleraine in the Bet McLean League Cup decider with Gerard Doherty, Beverland and Gary Thompson coming in.

Baxter's side had started the final well. Back at Windsor, they were behind after just 90 seconds.

As is so often the case for Linfield, Kirk Millar was the provider. The king of assists delivered a telling ball into the box and Callacher wanted it more than anyone else, rising high to connect with his head.

Before the ball entered the net, it may have touched Callacher's central defensive partner Mark Haughey. Healy didn't care. His team had taken an important advantage early on.

It could and should have been 2-0 shortly after when Chris Casement's fantastic delivery from the right flank found Waterworth free in the area but the in-form striker failed to convert.

The visitors needed a response. After a trademark run, Paul Heatley fired straight at Linfield No.1 Rohan Ferguson, then Jamie McGonigle struck wide from a clever Jordan Owens knock down and on 40 minutes from another Owens header, Rodney Brown's effort was tipped over by Ferguson.

If that gave the Crues fans hope, it was Linfield supporters who were cheering even more on 50 minutes when Waterworth smashed into the net.

Seconds after the break, running on to Jordan Stewart's pass, he had a powerful drive from distance well saved by Gerard Doherty. There was no stopping him from a couple of yards out.

Joel Cooper was the creator this time with a dazzling raid down the left, tricking his way past Beverland before firing in a cross which the Crusaders defence failed to clear. Millar had a chance to score but his off-target shot fell to Waterworth and he made no mistake.

Since he returned to the team, Waterworth has netted six times in four games. Class tells. Class counts. So too experience.

Waterworth has been brilliant lately. The guy scores big goals in important games. One of the Irish League's greatest big game hunters.

McGonigle has the potential to do the same, though he will have been fuming two minutes after the Blues had gone 2-0 in front that he nodded into the arms of Ferguson from inside the six-yard box.

A goal then for Crusaders would have changed the dynamic. Instead, Linfield remained in charge and could have scored No.3 through Casement, who was twice thwarted by Doherty.

That third goal was not far away. Millar racked up another assist as his in-swinging corner on 63 minutes was powered home by Callacher, who lost his marker Owens to seal the points.

The night went from bad to worse for Crusaders on 88 minutes when Beverland was sent off, after receiving a second yellow card for pulling back substitute Shayne Lavery.

There was still time for the excellent Fallon to deliver a classy finish in injury-time - Linfield's 100th of the season in all competitions.

What a night for the Blues. They have that champion look about them again.

LINFIELD: Ferguson, Haughey, Callacher, Waterworth (Currie 88), Cooper, Stewart (Lavery 76), Millar (Kearns 84), Fallon, Mulgrew, Quinn, Casement.

Subs not used: Moore, Stafford, Clarke, Hery.

CRUSADERS: Doherty, Beverland, Lowry (Forsythe 46), McGonigle, Caddell (McGinley 57), O'Rourke, Owens (Hale 76), Brown, Thompson, Heatley, Dummigan.

Subs not used: O'Neill, Hegarty, Cushley, McElroy.

Man of the match: Jimmy Callacher

Match rating: 7/10

Referee: Keith Kennedy

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