Crusaders and Linfield ready for battle again in Shield final

Linfield boss David Healy has expressed concerns about the state of the Showgrounds pitch in Ballymena ahead of tonight's County Antrim Shield final clash with Crusaders. Picture by PA

Toal's County Antrim Shield final: Crusaders v Linfield (tonight, 7.45pm)

LINFIELD have had just three days to get over the hurt of Saturday's Irish Cup exit as they prepare for tonight's rematch with defending champions Crusaders in the County Antrim Shield final.

David Healy's Blues lead the way in the Danske Bank Irish Premiership, currently sitting nine points clear of the third-placed Crues and having beaten their Belfast in the three previous meetings between the sides this season.

However, Stephen Baxter's reigning Gibson Cup holders inflicted a hammer blow to Linfield's double hopes when a goal one minute before the end of extra-time sent them tumbling of the Irish Cup at the sixth round stage at Windsor Park on Saturday.

That the winning goal came from former Blue Billy Joe Burns only served to add injury to insult.

Neither side managed to break the deadlock by the end of 90 minutes, and it was Crues strikers Jordan Owens who opened the scoring when he smashed home in the 103rd minute.

However, that was cancelled out by Linfield debutant Marek Cervenka in the 117th minute before Burns's late, late show.

A similarly tight affair can be expected tonight, although much of the pre-match focus has been on the decision to host the final at the Showgrounds in Ballymena.

Mid and East Antrim Council invested £250,000 to re-lay the pitch last summer but David Jeffrey, manager of the Braidmen, has drawn attention to the playing surface during recent weeks.

Four Ballymena matches have been postponed during the current campaign, including Saturday's scheduled Irish Cup sixth round clash with Portadown.

And Linfield boss Healy has joined the chorus of concern ahead of tonight's game.

"The choice has been made. Is it the right choice? Probably not. If the game is on what state is the pitch going to be in? I don't know," he said.

"Come Tuesday there is not going to be much football played, that's for sure."

Elsewhere tonight, third-from-bottom Dungannon Swifts welcome Coleraine to Stangmore Park in the Danske Bank Premiership.

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