Linfield hero Paul Smyth eyeing treble joy
Crusaders 0 Linfield 2
In the big games you need big players to rise to the challenge and it was the boys in blue who sparkled in the spring sunshine at Seaview.
There was huge pressure on Linfield to beat Crusaders in this Tennent's Irish Cup quarter-final as defeat would have virtually ended their hopes of winning major silverware.
Lifted by the news that their opponents were without the injured Colin Coates and suspended duo Paul Heatley and Michael Carvill, the visitors set about their task with real purpose and drive and the 2-0 victory was well deserved.
Man of the match Paul Smyth wasn't among the goalscorers but his devastating wing play, pace and trickery tortured the Crues defence.
"We battled harder and I think we wanted it more," said the 19-year-old. "They had a few players missing which affected their team but they still have a strong squad. I just felt we fought harder and deserved it.
"In the first half I was a bit off it but I got into the game later on.
"Once I took on Craig McClean I got the urge to keep testing him and I managed to get the foul in the second half from Billy Joe Burns for the penalty and goal. I was happy about that but I'm glad I didn't take the penalty and miss it!"
Stephen Lowry missed two first-half chances, the first one saved by Sean O'Neill and the second one a header which should have been buried, but they didn't prove costly as the midfielder coolly converted from the spot in the 73rd minute after Burns had floored Smyth.
Then Jamie Mulgrew weaved some magic a minute before the end, coasting past Howard Beverland and picking out Niall Quinn, whose header finished the contest.
The Blues are seven points behind the champions in the title sprint with eight matches remaining so the County Antrim Shield holders can still snatch the Gibson Cup as well as the Irish Cup.
Smyth added: "I was out for 10 weeks and it was a struggle watching the team draw and not play well at times.
"It is frustrating as you feel you can make an impact but you can't come back too early and suffer another break.
"I want a good run in the team without injury, fingers crossed.
"The double or even treble is still on and we will challenge for every trophy, we have a good mentality to push on and win things. We'll never give up on the title race, it's a two-horse race but we'll always battle.
"We will challenge Crusaders like we did on Saturday and I'm sure we will catch them.
"It's only seven points. Last year there was a gap of about 14 points brought back to two so there is no reason why we can't do it. We have the players and the capability and the strength in the squad, subs included, to go on and do it. I think we can challenge for the league title.
"We know we have the players to do it. I'd love to win the double but we'll take it game by game. This Cup win gives us a real buzz and we were never scared of Crusaders."
Blues chief David Healy was impressed with his side's performance and he should be as not many sides come to Seaview and leave deserved winners.
"This outcome may not have a bearing on the title race but it gives us further belief that we can match and beat teams like Crusaders," he said.
"People ask me are you enjoying it? But after the Portadown game you think you're one draw away from a crisis.
"It was an end of the world feeling after the Ports game but we have won the games since. It's never a crisis but I'm chuffed to bits at our performance against Crusaders, we deserved to win the game, we were the better team.
"They are a great side and top of the league for a reason so it's a big result for us.
"Roy (Carroll) was fouled for the goal that was ruled out and although he hasn't been fit since I played with him in the Under-19s, he has got that experience and know-how.
"He came and collected the ball well but didn't have many saves to make. What he did have to do you expect Roy to do it well and he did."
Crues boss Stephen Baxter and his players are naturally disappointed as another chance to win the first double in the club's history has gone up in smoke but he accepted that Linfield were deserved winners.
"I'm very proud of my players because they have dragged this club kicking and screaming to where we are today," he said. "You see what it means for Linfield to win these games.
"The players give everything they have and my boys will be hurting but hopefully this can galvanise the boys and we will ask them to keep going, we have a good dressing room and they will continue to work hard to achieve success."
Linfield: Carroll, Haughey, Stafford, Callacher, M Clarke, Quinn, Lowry, Mulgrew, Smyth (Ward, 85 mins), Stewart (Burns, 77 mins), Waterworth. Unused subs: Gaynor, Moore, Millar.
Crusaders: O'Neill, Mitchell, Burns, Beverland, McClean (Cushley, 64 mins), Lowry (Suarez, 84 mins), Caddell (Clarke, 72 mins), Forsythe, Whyte, Brown, Owens. Unused subs: Dougherty, Keane
Man of the Match: Paul Smyth
Match rating: 7/10.
Referee: Ray Hetherington (Dungannon)