On Tuesday night Linfield and Crusaders will contest the Final of the County Antrim Shield (CAS) at the Ballymena Showgrounds (7.45pm ko, all-ticket, played to a finish). The teams met in the 2017 Final when Linfield won 3-1. Linfield and Crusaders have won the CAS trophy a total of 44 and 7 times respectively.
On Saturday the two teams met at a bitterly cold Windsor Park in a dramatic Irish Cup tie, decided only after extra time in favour of Crusaders (2-1). In the first half Linfield looked reasonably comfortable, as the Crues struggled to get any sort of foothold in the game. After the interval break the balance of the game began to fluctuate, as the Crues changed tack with the introduction from the bench of striker Jordan Owens. With a focal point now up front, the visitors began to work the Linfield backline more. Linfield though continued to create more opportunities when moving forward and were very unfortunate not to score after hitting the woodwork twice.
There then followed a roller coaster period of extra time which first saw the Crues take the lead when Owens volleyed powerfully home. This was then cancelled out when new Linfield loan signing Marek Cervenke pounced on a calamitous back pass to fire home his first goal for the club. The action then began to become more frenetic with some of the players clearly looking out on their feet. There was however to be one more late final twist to the game when Billy Joe Burns blasted the ball home to put the Crues into the next round of the competition. A disappointing result for the Blues in a game which they at least deserved to take to a penalty shoot out.
Linfield now move on to the Ballymena Showgrounds, determinded to bounce back with a quick return to winning ways. CAS holders Crusaders will no doubt be buoyed after recording a first win of the season over Linfield who had won all of the three league games already played between the teams. After Saturday's physically demanding game, both sets of players must be hoping that the Final will be decided well before either extra time or penalties are called into effect. With a forecast of more wet and windy weather, the conditioning of the players may well have a major bearing on the result in what is sure to be another intense game. In the end though, it could well be a case of whichever team wants it more on the night.
After the weekend postponement of Ballymena's Irish Cup tie at the Showgrounds, coupled with the prospect of more wintry weather on the way, both sets of supporters wil be keeping a close eye on developments at the stadium come Tuesday afternoon. Hopefully though, it will 'game on' and a night that the Linfield faithful will remember for all the right reasons! COYB!