The first clash between this season’s title favourites looks set to be a classic. Read on for Toals Sport’s preview for Crusaders v Linfield!
Despite falling to a 4-2 defeat in Coleraine, Stephen Baxter’s men currently enjoy a five-point lead at the top of the table. An electric performance from Paul Heatley inspired a 5-2 victory against Glentoran at home last weekend. Ross Clarke’s 82nd minute finish was Crusaders thirtieth goal in nine games. The mercurial Heatley has bagged seven this season already and currently leads the race for the golden boot. Crusader’s versatility this season (usually dependent on Jordan Owen’s position in the team or on the bench) has seen the team display either direct or patient styles of play. The supportive roles played by Jamie McGonigle, Paul McElroy and David Cushley gives Baxter options in attack.
Since narrowly missing out on European qualification, David Healy’s Linfield are once again demonstrating title-winning form domestically. Northern Ireland international Shayne Lavery secured his first hat-trick for the club in the opening 14 minutes Saturday’s game against Glenavon. He will surely be the danger man on Friday night. Supporting the front-man has been the mercurial Bastien Hery. The Frenchman has embraced the Irish League and has shown himself to be a highly creative force. On the wings both Joel Cooper and Kirk Millar have also seen a return to their most dangerous form. Linfield have also revived their defensive rigity after a wobble against Coleraine. New goalkeeper Rohan Ferguson has kept clean sheets in the last four consecutive league games.
Perhaps the league’s most dangerous forward (with an eye for the exceptional), Paul Heatley will strive to be the difference in this one. The current top-scorer in the league, Heatley will be up against Niall Quinn in an unfamiliar right-back position after the injury to Chris Casement. For his part Quinn played a crucial role in Linfield’s 7-0 demolition of Glenavon last week. While providing defensive support Quinn’s marauding runs and licence to come inside on his left gave Linfield a new attacking challenge. Both men will look to provide attacking support for their sides, but must be wary of the danger posed by their opposing player.
Perhaps an unconventional head-to-head battle here. Both men typically occupy defensive positions in their team, but well timed runs by either men may be the difference here. Both Lowry and Fallon will need to carry-out their defensive duties against the likes of Hery and McElroy. Each player’s ability to move forward and provide the extra support makes them danger men here. Lowry and Fallon’s ability to make decisive contributions at both ends of the pitch makes this an intriguing battle come kick-off.
The acquistion of former Dungannon captain Chris Hegarty has been a huge success for Stephen Baxter. After highly impressive European performances, Hegarty’s domestic form has seen him become a crucial fixture in the Crusaders team. The defender however may not face another player with the unique ability of Shayne Lavery. The forward’s four European goals earned him an international cap against Germany last month while last Saturday’s game with Glenavon saw Lavery convert a hat-trick in just fourteen minutes. Hegarty and Crusader’s physicality against Lavery’s tenacity will be a key battle on Friday night.
At the time of writing, Crusaders are priced up at 13/8, Linfield 7/5 and the draw is 9/4.
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