Crusaders and Linfield still going blow for blow in Danske Bank Premiership
LAST night at Seaview was the mother of all stress tests for defending champions Crusaders – but they just about held it together to edge out Coleraine and remain a single point ahead of Linfield with just two games to play.
The Shore Road men had to come from a goal down in the first half and endured a nervy final 20 minutes but deservedly held on for a crucial win.
Big games demand big performances – and two-goal hero Paul Heatley delivered for Crusaders, and ended Coleraine’s incredible 17-match unbeaten run that dates back to New Year’s Eve.
The lively winger was magnificent from start to finish.
James McLaughlin put the visitors ahead after 30 minutes against the run of play but the Crues hit back with two quick-fire goals before half-time through Jordan Owens and Heatley.
Heatley grabbed his second of the night on 68 minutes to put the Crues 3-1 up but Coleraine replied immediately through substitute Jamie McGonigle.
There were a few hearts in mouths in the closing stages as Coleraine went in search of an equaliser. The home side didn’t defend well near the end but just about preserved their 3-2 advantage.
The champions should have been two goals up in the opening nine minutes, Jordan Forsythe flashing his header wide after 27 seconds and Heatley missing the target, with raiding defender Billy Joe Burns the architect of both chances.
With Eoin ‘Skinner’ Bradley missing through suspension, the visitors lacked a cutting edge and the Bannsiders’ defence coughed up another chance on 28 minutes.
Heatley cushioned Craig McClean’s long diagonal ball perfectly for the in-rushing Forsythe but Coleraine ’keeper Chris Johns made a flying save to deny the elegant central midfielder.
And just when it seemed a matter of time before the Hatchetmen would open the scoring, they conceded one on the half-hour mark.
Hard-working striker James McLaughlin tried his luck from 30 yards and the ball flew into the top right-hand corner of the net, giving Crusaders skipper Sean O’Neill in goal no chance.
But it’s become part of Crusaders’ DNA to respond in adversity.
Within 10 minutes of conceding the opening goal of the night, the Shore Road men were in front.
Attacking down the left flank, Heatley didn’t have to go past his man as his inch-perfect low cross found Owens who tapped the ball home to level the game and claim his 19th league goal of the season.
Two minutes later, the bustling striker saw his header cleared off the line by Lyndon Kane but Stephen Baxter’s men kept knocking at Coleraine’s door and five minutes before the interval they forged ahead through Heatley.
His first effort from just inside the penalty area was well saved by Chris Johns but the ball came straight back to the winger who struck the ball hard and low beyond the Coleraine ‘keeper’s despairing dive.
Heatley found the target again midway through the second half with a perfect strike before McGonigle grabbed a goal back with a fine low drive.
On 83 minutes and Coleraine pushing hard, Jordan Allan will have nightmares after he saw his header breeze past the upright.
Crusaders breathed a huge sigh of relief - and an even bigger one when the final whistle sounded. Even though Linfield kept up the pressure with a 3-0 win over Glenavon last night, the title is still in Crusaders’ hands.
LINFIELD kept the pressure on Crusaders last night with a comfortable win over Glenavon at Windsor Park.
Aaron Burns opened the scoring from the spot approaching the half-hour after Andrew Waterworth had been brought down as he tried to round Glenavon keeper Jonathan Tuffey.
Less than five minutes later, the Blues were two to the good after Niall Quinn put in a pinpoint cross for Mark Haughey to head a looping ball impressively into the top corner. And the game was over as a contest before half-time when striker Paul Smyth fired in the third after Waterworth had played him through.
Glenavon striker Joel Cooper twice went close early in the second half, but it was to no avail as Linfield cruised to a crucial three points.
Elsewhere, Cliftonville failed to capitalise on Coleraine’s defeat at Seaview in the battle for a European spot as they lost 4-1 away to Ballymena.
Kyle Owens broke the deadlock for Ballymena 10 minutes into second-half with a header which Reds keeper Peter Burke got a hand to.
Minutes later, it was 2-0 when former Red Johnny McMurray slotted in from a Conor McCloskey cross.
Cliftonville didn’t go down without a fight as Stephen Garret beat Ross Glendinning with a superb finish shortly after the hour-mark, but Ballymena restored their two-goal advantage when McMurray turned provider for Cathair Friel to fire in from close range.
Things were only to get worse for Cliftonville as McMurray showed no mercy to his former club in bagging his second and Ballymena’s fourth of the night before the final whistle.
At the bottom of the table, Portadown were put out of their misery as their 3-2 defeat at Ards confirmed their inevitable relegation.
Dungannon Swifts remained on course for a play-off spot for Europa League football with a 4-1 win at Ballinamallard, while Glentoran won a fairly forgettable match at Taylor’s Avenue 2-1 against Carrick Rangers.