So, at last, the re-arranged County Antrim Shield Final between Crusaders and Linfield went ahead. The game itself could have easily been called off for a second time. The build-up of Storm Gareth was to batter the Belfast area, with winds of up to 50 mph. First off, well done to the players for pulling their socks up and battling away on the pitch.
The road to the final
The road to the final was not plain sailing for the two Danske Bank Premiership teams. The Crues got through to the final by defeating Knockbreda 2-1 in the first round. This set them up for a North Belfast derby against Cliftonville where they ran out 4-3 winners. The Crues then beat high-flying League One team Larne 1-0 in the semi-final.
The Blues started their route to the final beating PSNI 2-1. They were then drawn against their Belfast rivals Glentoran in the second round, disposing of them 2-1. The semi-final saw Linfield drawn against Ballymena. Both teams worked extremely hard and both deserved to get to the final, however, the Blues came away with a 2-1 win. To think many around the league think the competition is not worth the effort.
So, to everyone’s surprise, the Crues went into this game unchanged from their last outing, a 3-0 home win against second-placed Ballymena. No surprise to this as they had the advantage of a week off due to their game at Warrenpoint being called off, but the rotation system that has been employed by Stephen Baxter had been there for all to see. Rory Patterson and Reece McGinlay dropped out of the squad due to only five substitutes being allowed.
The Blues made three changes to the squad that were beaten 2-0 by Glenavon last time out. Gareth Deane dropped to the bench to give Conor Mitchell his first start in the Blues’ net. Kyle McClean made way for Kirk Millar, and Mark Stafford came into the team in place of the influential and suspended captain Jamie Mulgrew. Josh Robinson pushed into a midfield role.
The Crues started the game setting themselves up as a 3-5-2. This is how Stephen Baxter started against Ballymena and it worked. Tonight though, this quickly started to work against the Crues. The 3-5-2 is and can be a very productive system. It gives you two strikers and three in the middle of the park. It gives you the benefits of playing a 4-4-2, with two strikers up front. This formation matches well against a 4-4-2 formation.
It wasn’t the formation the Blues started and finished with as David Healy stuck to a 4-2-3-1. One striker up front gives the three centre-halves something to think about, and on occasions gives them too much time on the ball. The three centre-halves need to be drilled with this formation. The Crues’ formation was quickly pressured into a 5-3-2 due to the wind and the Linfield inside-forwards pushing back the Crues wing-backs.
Linfield take the advantage
With the wind behind them, the Blues set out their intent from the start. Healy had identified that quick play, winning the ball first and starting to move quickly put the Crues under pressure. The Crues tried to dig in and hold on for the second half until they had the advantage of the wind, but without luck. The Blues took the lead from a corner. This was to be the telling point of the evening. The wind was causing mayhem with the movement of the ball. A corner from the Blues was misjudged by Sean O’Neill in the Crues net. He punched it onto the head of Mark Stafford who was rushing in at the back post.
To the Crues’ credit, they got themselves back into the game. A ball that the two teams couldn’t deal with eventually saw it drop to Jordan Owens’ head and then over to David Cushley who fired an unstoppable shot past Conor Mitchell in the Linfield goal.
A minute later the Blues were straight back in the lead. Andrew Waterworth shot was palmed out to the feet of Kirk Millar, who was first to react and finish. A prime example of the 3-5-2 system’s flaws with the three centre-halves not picking up on loose players.
Linfield made it three before the break. This time a ball into the Crues’ box was met by the head of Billy Joe Burns. He headed the ball off captain Colin Coates which in turn saw the ball in the back of the net. Should he have just headed the ball out for the corner? We have to give him credit because the conditions must have played their part in his decision to head it back into the danger area.
Crusaders’ tactical change
On came Kyle Owens and Ross Clarke. Off went the injured Michael Ruddy and Rory Hale. With that came the wind at their backs and a change of formation to a 4-4-2. This took out the holding midfielder and left them with a three on two in the middle of the park. This actually brought Jordan Stewart into the game for the Blues. Playing in the number 10 role he was starting to pick up pockets of space. For the Crues, this gave them the much-needed width to get forward and deliver balls into the box. The wind was making it impossible to judge the direction the ball was coming from.
The Crues started the second half well and used the conditions to their advantage. The Crues were doing exactly what the Blues did in the first half, using a corner and the conditions to put in an awkward ball into the box. This saw Coates rise to make it 3-2 to the Blues. The Crues pushed for the equaliser but were thwarted. Making good use of the time they were allowed to take the sting out of the game truly helped. The Blues started to get themselves into the game. The Crues change of shape had left them short in the middle of the park.
The fireworks were saved until the end of this pulsating encounter. This time another corner was put into the Blues’ box where Jordan Forsythe met the ball unopposed to fire it home to make it 3-3. Then deep into injury time, the Crues used the elements to their advantage to put a free-kick into the box. Cushley was on hand to get his head on the ball and give the Crues the 4-3 victory.
For the neutral a great game to watch. On the eye, it was not great as the weather conditions were relentless. A victory that the Crues will take but the change of tactic showed that the starting formation did not suit. As for the Blues, they gave it a good go and I am sure they would have rather gone in at half-time without conceding.