BALLYMENA 0 CRUSADERS 2
Crusaders rekindled their Danske Bank Premiership title hopes with a comfortable win at Ballymena Showgrounds.
Josh Robinson and Gavin Whyte scored the goals for the Seaview side, who could also afford the luxury of missing a first half penalty when Stuart Addis saved Diarmuid O’Carroll’s spot kick.
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter made a number of changes to his starting line-up in response to his side’s recent indifferent run, recalling Craig McClean, Josh Robinson and Diarmuid O’Carroll.
And the visitors made a bright start with Billy Joe Burns curling a free kick just over, while Jordan Owens rose above Davy Munster to meet Craig McClean’s cross from the left but Stuart Addis was able to tip the ball onto the roof of the net.
Owens was again involved on 11 minutes as he punced on a slip by Munster but his low snap-shot was turned around the near post by Addis.
Ballymena slowly began to gain a foothold in the game and Stephen McBride fired a shot into the side netting after a clever one-two with Matthew Tipton.
But just as Ballymena were enjoying their best spell, the visitors struck on 23 minutes.
From Richard Clarke’s corner, Colin Coates headed goalwards and the ball bobbled through a ruck of players before finishing up in the net, with defender Josh Robinson claiming the final touch.
There was late drama at the end of the first half as Crusaders were awarded a stoppage time penalty after Addis impeded Declan Caddell after the midfielder had tried to dink the ball over the United keeper.
Diarmuid O’Carroll took the spot kick but Addis dived to his right to push the striker’s effort around the post.
United made a bright start to the second half with Alan Teggart’s fierce shot blocked by Robinson while Matthew Ferguson’s industrious run ended with his shooting straight at O’Neill.
But the Sky Blues were hit with a sucker punch on 56 minutes when Craig McClean’s cross from the left was headed clear by a defender but only as far as Gavin Whyte, who fired an angled drive past Addis from 14 yards.
The visitors came close to adding a third on 67 minutes when Heatley’s fierce shot was beaten out by Addis, while Declan Caddell could not foce the ball home from two yards after an Owens knock-down.
Crusaders finished the game with 10 men when skipper Colin Coates was dismissed in stoppage time for his second booking.
Ballymena United: Addis, T Kane, Munster, Taylor, McBride, Gawley (sub McCaul 79), Surgenor, Ferguson (sub Boyce 59), Teggart, Tipton, Jenkins. Subs (not used): McCullagh, Ruddy, E Kane.
Crusaders: O’Neill, Burns, Robinson, Coates, McClean, Whyte, Caddell, Clarke, Heatley (sub Friars 90+4), O’Carroll (sub Adamson 70), Owens. Subs (not used): Hanley, McCutcheon, O’Hanlon.
Referee: Andrew Davey (Bangor)