Lavery leads the way but Blues facing uphill battle
Linfield 1 Dundalk 1
If David Healy's Linfield are to get their hands on the inaugural Unite the Union Champions Cup they must do it the hard way after being held by Dundalk at a bitterly cold Windsor Park last night.
The south Belfast side got off to the best possible start when Shayne Lavery - named in the Northern Ireland squad for next week's Euro 2020 qualifiers against the Netherlands and Germany - fired them into an early lead.
But the visitors turned the screw after the break and levelled early in the second half through Daniel Kelly.
It means the odds will be stacked against the Blues when they travel to Oriel Park on Monday night for the second leg.
Before the Irish Football Association recently poured cold water on a proposed All-Ireland League, suggested by Irish businessman Kieran Lucid, Unite signed up to a three-year deal to sponsor the cross-border tournament that sees the Danske Bank Premiership champions go head-to-head with the League of Ireland title holders in a two-legged shoot-out.
It's certainly a lucrative prospect for both clubs - the eventual winners will pocket a hefty €50,000, with the runners-up picking up half that amount.
Importantly, there is a further €25,000 ring-fenced for community projects in the competing teams' local areas.
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Linfield boss Healy admitted in the build-up to the game that his priority is retaining the league title and would have preferred to be facing Dungannon Swifts instead of this double-header against Vinny Perth's lads, whose regular season was concluded last Sunday when they lost out to Shamrock Rovers in the final of the FAI Cup at the Aviva Stadium.
Although the game wasn't a priority for Healy, he still named what was almost a full-strength side which included fit-again international striker Lavery. Goalkeeper Gareth Deane was drafted in to replace Rohan Ferguson, while Kirk Millar took over from Andy Waterworth.
Dundalk boss Perth retained only four players who featured in the Cup final last weekend - goalkeeper Gary Rodgers, Sean Hoare, Patrick Hoban and Jamie McGrath.
Healy's boys got off to the best possible start with Lavery requiring merely nine minutes to forge the breakthrough.
The former Everton man gobbled up a pass from Jamie Mulgrew, tricked his way between Hoare and Andy Boyle and rattled home a beauty. Rodgers had no chance.
Dundalk attempted to come back off the ropes but skipper Hoban blasted wildly over.
Then, an eye-catching move on 24 minutes involving Kelly and Hoban resulted in Jordan Flores curling a 20-yard shot inches past the post.
The visitors grew into the game and were almost level six minutes later.
John Mountney's corner-kick was met by the head of Boyle, but his thumping effort was superbly tipped onto the bar by Deane, who was at full stretch.
But the Blues should have increased their lead two minutes before the break. Matty Clarke's inch-perfect pass sent Joel Cooper free, but instead of squaring to the unmarked Lavery, he decided to take on the shot and blasted shamefully wide.
Dundalk asked the early questions after the break and Flores again went close on 49 minutes with another low curling shot from the edge of the box that sneaked just wide.
The Blues immediately hit back with Kirk Millar's free-kick headed away by Jamie McGrath when his shot appeared to be destined for the top corner.
But the team from the south were level on 51 minutes. Kelly was allowed time and space to pick his way through the middle after latching onto a pass from Hoban and he drilled a low shot past Deane.
They almost struck again with another lightning raid. This time, Kelly provided an inch-perfect cross but Hoban somehow failed to convert from just six yards out.
It's now back to Oriel Park on Monday night with the pendulum now tilting firmly in the favour of Dundalk to pick up the trophy.
LINFIELD: Deane, Stafford, Callacher, Cooper (Waterworth 65), Millar, Lavery, Clarke Fallon (Mitchell 86), Hery, Mulgrew, Quinn.
Unused subs: Ferguson, Robinson, Shevlin, Reynolds, Casement.
DUNDALK: Rogers, Hoare, Shields, Flores, Mountney (Duffy 58), Hoban (G Kelly 81), McGrath Dummigan (Gannon 63), D Kelly, Jarvis, Boyle.
Unsed subs: Gartland, Benson, Massey, McCarey.
Man of the match: Shayne Lavery
Match rating: 7/10
Referee: Ian McNabb