Waterworth the hero as Linfield all but wrap up title glory
Ballymena Utd 0 Linfield 1
Linfield took a massive stride towards claiming a second Danske Bank Premiership title in three seasons with a crucial win at Ballymena United.
As so often in his Linfield career, Andy Waterworth was the Blues' hero with the decisive goal which means the Windsor Park side need just one point from their remaining four games to wrestle the crown back from Crusaders. However, such is their superior goal difference, it is all but secured already.
The first meaningful effort came from the home side with five minutes on the clock.
Johnny McMurray and Andy McGrory combined on the right before the former squared the ball to Adam Lecky but the 16-goal striker, under pressure from Andrew Mitchell, could only sky his effort over.
Two minutes later, Linfield full-back Chris Casement headed for the bye-line and his low cross looked destined to be turned in at the back post by Joel Cooper only for a timely intervention from United defender Kofi Balmer to force the winger to put his effort wide.
Ballymena settled into a sustained spell of pressure and only the width of the woodwork prevented them from taking the lead on 25 minutes.
McGrory's corner was half-cleared to Balmer, whose volley almost cracked the crossbar in two before Jude Winchester's follow-up effort was deflected wide.
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Two minutes later, Leroy Millar's header from a Steven McCullough corner was deflected behind off a defender with the Sky Blues appealing furiously for a handball but referee Andrew Davey shook his head.
As Ballymena's pressure grew to incessant levels, Gareth Deane produced a stunning save to keep Linfield level, springing to his right to brilliantly turn McGrory's free-kick over the bar.
In a rare Linfield attack, Niall Quinn's in-swinging free-kick from the right was met by the unmarked Jimmy Callacher but the free-scoring defender's header lacked the power and direction to beat Ross Glendinning.
Lecky has been in prolific goalscoring form in his first season at Ballymena but the big striker almost notched an unwanted score to his tally when his glancing header from Mitchell's free-kick forced his own keeper Glendinning to scurry across goal to turn behind, while the keeper was also worked from the resultant corner in a goalmouth melee which was eventually ended by the raised flag of the assistant referee.
After 45 minutes of stalemate, it took just 45 seconds of the second period for Linfield to break the deadlock.
Trickery from Cooper took him away from Balmer before he slipped a pass into the feet of Waterworth in the penalty area.
The striker still had plenty to do but he clipped a left-footed effort beyond the grasp of Glendinning and in at the far post.
The goal visibly rocked Ballymena but they responded as a swift counter-attack saw Millar release Lecky.
The striker cut inside and laid the ball into the path of McGrory but Deane made a superb block to thwart the midfielder's initial effort and was then able to dive gratefully on the loose ball.
Linfield almost doubled their advantage on the hour as Callacher advanced from the back and as the opportunity opened up for a shot, Glendinning had to get down smartly to turn the defender's effort behind.
Ballymena almost carved out an opening on 75 minutes when McMurray exchanged passes with McGrory but he was stretching to reach the return ball and could only volley straight at Deane in the Linfield goal.
Callacher then headed over from a Quinn free-kick while Deane produced another fine stop to prevent Millar's final effort for Ballymena, deep in stoppage time.
Ballymena United: Glendinning, Ervin, Whiteside (Mayse 79), Addis, Balmer, McGrory, McCullough, Winchester (Kane 63), Millar, Lecky, McMurray.
Subs not used: Williamson, Quigley, McGinty, Shevlin, Watson.
Linfield: Deane, Casement, Robinson, Callacher, Quinn, A Mitchell, Mulgrew, Kearns (Fallon 90+2), Stewart (Clarke 83), Cooper (Millar 78), Waterworth.
Subs not used: C Mitchell, Stafford, McGivern, Cervenka.
Man of the match: Gareth Deane (Linfield)
Match rating: 7/10
Referee: Andrew Davey (Bangor)