Heatley 21’, Stafford OG 33’, Whyte 44’, Callacher OG 81’, P. Lowry 87'
Carroll (GK), Haughey, Callacher, Stafford, M.Clarke, Millar (J.Stewart 58’), Mitchell (Rooney 78’), Garrett, S Lowry, Burns, Waterworth
Quinn, Robinson and C. Stewart
Jenson (GK), McChrystal, Coates ©, Beverland, BJ Burns, Caddell, Forsyth, Snoddy (Ward 90’), Heatley (P Lowry 82’), Whyte (Carvill 90’), Owens
Linfield had their first home fixture in 37 days tonight after six consecutive away matches as they took on Stephen Baxter’s Crusaders in front of the Sky Sports broadcasting cameras and the neutrals certainly weren’t left disappointed as the game produced a flurry of goals.
Both teams were coming into the game in need of a win. With Coleraine winning at the weekend they remain league leaders with 31 points, whilst Linfield approached the game in third position with 21 points and Crusaders a point behind Linfield in fifth place.
David Healy made two changes to his team that played in Coleraine last week with Andrew Mitchell replacing the injured Jamie Mulgrew and Stephen Lowry was recalled in place of Niall Quinn. There was also a change on the touchline as Ross Oliver was standing in for David Healy who was serving a touchline ban.
Crusaders were first to threaten after just two minutes when Gavin Whyte picked up a loose ball before driving at the Linfield defence and pulling the ball across for Jordan Owens in the middle, but Owens’ goalward shot from 12 yards was crucially blocked by Robert Garrett.
Linfield’s Mark Haughey took on a strike from distance when he found himself in space around 25 yards out and his fierce drive was expertly palmed over by Crusaders’ experienced goalkeeper Brian Jenson.
Jenson was called into action for a second time on eighteen minutes when Andy Waterworth turned Howard Beverland inside the box and Jenson produced a strong right hand to turn the ball behind from the striker’s low drive for a corner which Crusaders were able to clear.
Crusaders broke the deadlock on 21 minutes when Jordan Forsyth’s cross from the right flank was met by a well-placed volley from Paul Heatley into the bottom right corner from the edge of the box.
The Hatchetmen then doubled their advantage on 33 minutes when Mark McChrystal’s cross was diverted by the unfortunate Mark Stafford into his own net as McChrystal reaped the rewards for a lung-busting run down the left flank.
Stafford made amends on 37 minutes to give Linfield renewed hope as he buried a bullet header from Kirk Millar’s corner. The popular defender showed immense passion in his celebrations and the Linfield supporters were hoping it was going to provide the lift required to kick Linfield on in an attempted comeback.
The ball then broke to Waterworth minutes later and it sat up invitingly for a volley from range, as the striker had a pop but he was unlucky as his dipping volley was just too high to trouble Jenson.
However, Crusaders reinstated their two-goal cushion a minute before the break, Gavin Whyte breaking forward and teeing up Heatley whose strike struck the crossbar, but Whyte was following up and showed a composed head to take a touch and fire a left-footed strike into the back of the net, sparking jubilation in the Crusaders end.
Stephen Lowry almost reduced the deficit on the brink of half-time when he got on the end of Millar’s swinging cross but he couldn’t divert his header on target as Linfield went into the break downbeat. The Linfield management team were tasked with an important team-talk to try and find a way to turn Linfield’s fortunes around.
Half Time: Linfield 1 – 3 Crusaders
Linfield went close again at the other side of the break when Waterworth dispossessed Coates before pulling the ball back to the onrushing Lowry whose low strike was met by an important block by Beverland with the shot looking destined for the back of the net.
When it looked for all the world that Jimmy Callacher had slipped in Kirk Millar with a defence-splitting pass, Crusaders goalkeeper Jenson showed why he had played at the highest level by getting out quickly to block Millar’s touch.
The Blues showed their mettle to pull it back to 2-3 on 55 minutes when Aaron Burns guided Andrew Mitchell’s splendid cross into the far corner with an expert header. Linfield, again, had a lifeline with half an hour remaining and the fans in the South Stand responded in support.
Linfield were desperately unlucky not to draw level shortly after when Robert Garrett set off on a mazy run into the box and picked out Burns but the ball was nicked away from him at a vital stage. Andrew Mitchell’s cross then evaded everyone in the box and flew just inches past the far post as Linfield continued to pressurise.
Baxter’s men were clinging on for dear life and it took a goal line clearance to keep their noses ahead when Jordan Owens turned away Matthew Clarke’s driven shot with Jenson beaten all-ends-up.
Despite Linfield’s fightback, Crusaders ultimately sealed their victory on 81 minutes when Gavin Whyte’s effort flew into the net via a deflection off the unfortunate Jimmy Callacher as the Shore Road side made it 2-4.
A poor night for Linfield was compounded on 87 minutes when Gavin Whyte picked up on poor defending to pick out Philip Lowry in the middle as he tucked away Crusaders’ fifth. Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter was understandably delighted.
Full Time: Linfield 2 – 5 Crusaders
LinfieldFC.com Man of the Match: Robert Garrett