Chris Johns (GK), Daniel Finlayson, Michael Newberry, Sam Roscoe, Matthew Clarke (Ryan McKay 75’), Chris Shields (Cammy Palmer 52’), Jamie Mulgrew © (Conor Pepper 65’), Max Haygarth (Ethan Devine 65’), Andrew Clarke, Chris McKee, Eetu Vertainen (Niall Quinn 75’)
Sean O’Neill (GK), Andrew McGrory (Robert McVarnock 64’), Douglas Wilson, Scot Whiteside, Sean Graham (George Tipton 45’), Steven McCullough, Josh Kelly © (Jack Henderson 45’), Kym Nelson, Jordan Gibson (Michael Place 64’), Ryan Waide (Kenneth Kane 64’), David McDaid
A hat-trick from Finnish forward Eetu Vertainen helped guide Linfield to a 3-0 win over Ballymena United at Windsor Park in the Danske Bank Premiership this afternoon.
In doing so, the Blues closed the gap at the top to move within a point of league leaders Cliftonville, whilst moving ahead of Larne on goal difference, although the Inver Reds have played a game less.
The Linfield team that defeated Ballymena this afternoon featured three changes from the midweek County Antrim Shield final defeat to Larne. Chris Johns came back in between the sticks in place of the injured David Walsh, whilst Max Haygarth replaced the suspended Kyle McClean, with former Manchester United Youth player Haygarth impressing in his first start which came on his 21st birthday. Joel Cooper was also suspended after picking up a fifth booking against Glenavon last week, so he was replaced by Chris McKee. David Healy and Ross Oliver were also serving suspensions, so First Team coach and former Northern Ireland International George McCartney stood in on the touchline.
The Blues dominated possession from the off, and after some patience they took the lead on 16 minutes. Matthew Clarke, who had an excellent match, got forward and into the box before finding Eetu Vertainen in the middle and he turned before placing a low shot beyond the ‘keeper.
The forward almost netted again a few minutes later when he dropped back to meet a dropping ball from a header out when Matthew Clarke delivered a corner, but Vertainen’s well-struck volley was blocked in front of goal.
United then had a big opportunity to draw level on the half-hour mark, but they didn’t capitalise. It came from a deep cross to the back post area and a defensive slip allowed Steven McCullough a free shot at close range before Chris Johns got down well to make a good save down low to his right.
Linfield then doubled their lead on 36 minutes with an excellent goal as Chris McKee found Andrew Clarke with an excellent, pinpoint threaded pass and Clarke’s shot towards the far corner had the ‘keeper beaten, although it might have been flashing just beyond the post had Eetu Vertainen not been on hand for a tap-in at the back post for his second of the day.
It could have been three before the break as Andrew Clarke broke from midfield before feeding Chris McKee on the edge of the box and after using the run of Matthew Clarke as a decoy, he took the opportunity to shoot and drew a diving save from experienced ‘keeper Sean O’Neill. United defender Sean Graham did well to stop Andrew Clarke pouncing on the rebound. On the brink of half-time, McKee then volleyed the wrong side of the post from Finlayson’s pinpoint cross.
Half Time: Linfield 2 – 0 Ballymena United
The Blues then added a third goal just 33 seconds into the second half. Full-back Daniel Finlayson drove inside before finding Eetu Vertainen with a left-footed cross and once the forward controlled the ball at the back post it was inevitable that he would hammer in a crisp strike to complete the second hat-trick of his Linfield career.
With another big match on the horizon with a trip to Seaview to face Crusaders on Tuesday, Linfield were able to make changes and keep legs fresh with that in mind. Despite the changes and the three-goal lead, the Blues continued to attack Ballymena’s goal. Matthew Clarke was next to threaten when he had a cross-come-shot beaten away by Sean O’Neill when he overlapped Andrew Clarke with a run into the box. Clarke was then replaced by 18-year-old debutant Ryan McKay who recently signed from Dundela and he had a solid debut.
David Jeffrey’s men almost pulled one back with twenty minutes remaining when Sean Graham won the ball on the edge of Linfield’s box before arrowing a low strike inches wide of the far post.
Linfield created a few further openings in the latter stages of the match, with Ethan Devine’s fierce strike being beaten away by Sean O’Neill and Daniel Finlayson drawing a wonderful reflex save from O’Neill when he met Niall Quinn’s free-kick delivery to the back post area.
Full Time: Linfield 3 – 0 Ballymena United
LinfieldFC.com Man of the Match: Eetu Vertainen