Chris Johns (GK), Michael Newberry, Mark Stafford, Jimmy Callacher, Niall Quinn, Jamie Mulgrew ©, Stephen Fallon (Cammy Palmer 56’), Navid Nasseri (Kirk Millar 68’), Jordan Stewart (Andy Waterworth 68’), Joel Cooper, Shayne Lavery
Aaron McCarey (GK), Kris Lowe, Garry Breen (Jamie Harney 76’), Ryan O’Reilly, Aaron Donnelly, Ronan Doherty (Daire O’Connor 60’), Chris Curran ©, Liam Bagnall, Paul O’Neill, Rory Hale (Barry Coffey 71’), Ryan Curran
Declan Dunne (GK), Odhran Casey, Daniel Kearns, Michael McCrudden
Linfield returned to winning ways at Windsor Park this afternoon but they had to be patient as two late goals by Shayne Lavery and a crucial goal-saving block by Mark Stafford ensured a deserved victory over Cliftonville this afternoon, despite the heroics of the visiting goalkeeper.
Linfield were the better side in the opening 45 and were unlucky on a few occasions not to go ahead. The Blues started the game at a great tempo with impressive debutant Michael Newberry putting in a dangerous ball within 30 seconds which Shayne Lavery couldn’t quite reach before the goalkeeper pounced to claim the ball following a deflection in the box. Soon after, Jimmy Callacher met Niall Quinn’s corner on the volley but his left-footed shot didn’t have the connection required to trouble the goalkeeper.
Jordan Stewart did brilliantly to get to the byline before hanging up a cross into the middle in the most dangerous of areas but there were no Linfield players poaching for what would have been an easy conversion.
The Blues were knocking on the door around the half-hour mark. Firstly, Shayne Lavery raced onto a loose ball following a burst from midfield by Jamie Mulgrew but the striker’s shot from inside the box was beaten away by Aaron McCarey in the Cliftonville goal.
McCarey then made a great save moments later. Niall Quinn whipped in a free-kick from the right and Mark Stafford flew in with a diving header which was brilliantly saved by McCarey who got down to his right and push the ball away from the corner of his goal.
Jamie Mulgrew then went agonisingly close to an opener when he struck a sweet strike narrowly wide of the bottom corner and then The Blues broke again when Shayne Lavery made a good tackle high up before Cooper slipped it to Stewart and he shot towards the far corner from inside the box but Garry Breen made a vital block.
Half Time: Linfield 0 – 0 Cliftonville
The Blues were forced into a substitute early in the second half when Stephen Fallon was unable to overcome a knock picked up in a 50-50 challenge. Cammy Palmer put in another strong showing off the bench which was important with Kyle McClean missing through suspension.
Reds goalkeeper Aaron McCarey came to Cliftonville’s rescue once again when Linfield constructed a nice move early in the second half. Joel Cooper played a one-two with Jordan Stewart, with Cooper drifting from wide right inwardly before shooting from a central position on the edge of the box which he hit sweetly but McCarey pushed it over with a strong hand. McCarey denied Cooper again a short time later when the winger hit a low shot from 25 yards which was kept out by the keeper’s feet following a deflection.
Within moments after coming on, Kirk Millar almost made an instant impact. He whipped in a trademark sizzling corner which Jimmy Callacher got a glancing header on but as he did so often at Windsor Park this afternoon, Aaron McCarey made a good stop.
Linfield must have been concerned that for all their chances and possession they couldn’t find a breakthrough and perhaps they might have been beginning to wonder if this was going to be their day, and once again on 67 minutes McCarey stood in their way to deny Shayne Lavery who went through on goal from a Navid Nasseri pass.
Long-awaited but richly deserved, Linfield finally got their breakthrough on 72 minutes. Joel Cooper picked up the ball on the right flank, shifted it onto his left foot and whipped in a glorious cross and with Andy Waterworth also sniffing in around it, Shayne Lavery produced a good headed finish into the roof of the net. Waterworth was just on the pitch, and if you watch the highlights you will see he attacks the front post which draws a central defender out slightly and as a result Shayne Lavery was able to attack the space left in between. Had Waterworth not been in there, Lavery probably would have been crowded out in a 2v1 scenario.
That didn’t mean Linfield’s job was done, however. Far from it. We hadn’t seen much from Cliftonville as an attacking force, but they suddenly had to chase the game and Ryan Curran was almost in with the help of a fortunate break of the ball to get beyond Kirk Millar and Niall Quinn but the attacker had a shot blocked by Jimmy Callacher from close range.
Then came a monumental moment in the game on 86 minutes. When Paul O’Neill raced onto a ball over the top beyond Jimmy Callacher and Michael Newberry with sheer pace it looked for all the world that the Reds would deal a suckerpunch. However, just as he slid it left for Barry Coffey for what looked a certain tap-in goal, Mark Stafford popped up out of nowhere to put in a goal-saving block. Top drawer defending which arguably saved Linfield from dropping two points.
The Reds continued to put pressure on in search of an equaliser with a nervy ending, which included a corner where the goalkeeper went up and a Cliftonville defender won the first ball but there was no-one on the end of it.
Shayne Lavery then put Linfield minds at ease as he made sure of a deserved victory in the third of four added minutes. Naturally, Cliftonville’s pressure meant they left the back door open and Cammy Palmer slipped the ball out right to Kirk Millar who then cut the ball across to Shayne Lavery to fire home a good finish, first time on his left foot into the roof of the net.
Full Time: Linfield 2 – 0 Cliftonville
LinfieldFC.com Man of the Match: Mark Stafford