Owens strikes to continue Crusaders' bid for season's first silverware
Crusaders 1-0 Carrick Rgs
Jordan Owens' first-half strike last night earned Crusaders a Toals County Antrim Shield final place against Ballymena.
Stephen Baxter's boys were hot favourites to see off the challenge of Carrick Rangers without a great degree of fuss at a bitterly cold Seaview, but they made heavy work of their victory.
They came up against an inspired goalkeeper in Harry Doherty, but the Crues were wasteful in front of goal.
When midfielder Mark Clarke received his marching orders 12 minutes from time, it was game over for David McAlinden's troops.
It's a case of one down and two to go for the Shore Road team as they still have a League Cup semi-final to negotiate at Dungannon next month before they travel across the Irish Sea to face Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the last four of the IRN-BRU Cup.
And let's not forget they are still chasing down Coleraine at the top of the league table.
The Crues approached the game in the best possible shape having won nine and drawn one - against Coleraine in the league on Saturday - of their last 10 games since they lost to Glenavon on October 14.
Ailing Carrick had lost seven of their last eight games, the solitary victory coming against Dundela in the last round of this tournament.
In fact, they have managed to score only one league goal since October 14 - and that came in a 7-1 hammering by Baxter's men.
The first half hour was dour stuff and, although Crusaders totally dominated, they had little to show for their efforts.
Jordan Forsythe tried his luck from distance, but Doherty had little difficulty in plucking the ball out of the night sky.
Then David Cushley attempted an audacious 40-yard free-kick, but it crashed off the Carrick wall and into the arms of the young goalkeeper.
The home team were presented with another good chance when Carrick defender Mark Edgar hauled down Jamie Glackin just outside the penalty box, but Doherty again showed good hands to grasp Cushley's shot after Forsythe had rolled the free-kick into his path.
But the Crues at last gave their fans something to cheer with that Owens strike on 32 minutes. The tricky Paul Heatley weaved his way free on the left and, when he whipped over a delicious cross, the striker got up to thunder a header past Doherty.
The Crues roared from the traps after the restart with Cushley's searching 40-yard pass picking out the jet-heeled Heatley, but Doherty was off his line in a flash and able to simply hoof clear.
And the same pair combined again on the hour when Cushley's deft little touch left Heatley totally in the clear, but Doherty once again got down smartly to beat away the shot.
Realising the game was slipping from their grasp, Carrick carved out their first - and only - opportunity of the night on 64 minutes.
Michael Smith's hopeful cross somehow found its way across the penalty area and little Eamon McAllister could only shoot straight into the arms of Brian Jensen.
Substitute Gavin Whyte was then introduced for Glackin and he tested Doherty with a stinging low drive.
But Carrick's chances of a shock went down the tubes when Clarke received his second yellow card of the night for a clumsy challenge on Forsythe.
The Crues will now face Ballymena United in the final on Tuesday, January 23.
CRUSADERS: Jensen, Beverland (McClean, 88 mins), Ward, Kerr, Brown, Caddell, Cushley (Nimick, 90 mins), Glackin (Whyte, 66 mins), Forsythe, Heatley, Owens.
Subs not used: Dougherty, Anderson.
CARRICK RANGERS: Doherty, Chapman, Larmour, Gage, Edgar, Hassin, Clarke, McAllister, Roy (McMillan, 76 mins), Smith (McKenna, 88 mins), Maybin.
Subs not used: McNally, Rice, Morrow.
Man of the match: Harry Doherty
Match rating: 4/10
Referee: Keith Kennedy (Lisburn)