IRISH LEAGUE: Stewart seals vital Linfield victory over Glenavon
With contrasting pre-match talk from each camp on the degree of pressure facing the opposition, defending champions Linfield turned up the heat on the teams at the top thanks to a well-earned 1-0 win over Glenavon.
Cameron Stewart’s first-half finish proved decisive in front of a packed Mourneview Park as Linfield cut the gap on Danske Bank Premiership leaders Coleraine to eight points and Glenavon, sitting second, to three.
It marked a first spot on the scoresheet of the season for Stewart - and first defeat on home soil for Glenavon.
A frantic opening period featured Linfield gaining ground off long deliveries from deep as Glenavon attempted to feed livewire winger Josh Daniels at every opportunity.
The footwork of each goalkeeper was tested but both Roy Carroll and Jonny Tuffey managed to handle the pressure.
Mark Haughey then popped up at the near post to block Daniels’ cross after the winger was sent clear by Andrew Mitchell’s ball down the line.
Moments later, Robert Garrett picked out Andy Waterworth wide on the right and his cross dropped between the legs of Cameron Stewart as Rhys Marshall stepped in from a few yards.
Linfield, however, grabbed control on 17 minutes when Chris Casement’s corner-kick delivery was flicked backwards by Waterworth and Stewart headed home - with Glenavon appeals for a foul dismissed.
Referee Ian McNabb also ended the half having left Linfield aggrieved by ruling out Stephen Lowry’s strike for handball.
The Lurgan Blues’ response to conceding was to carve out sights of goal for both Mark Sykes and Bobby Burns but the angle on each occasion proved too testing to steer anything on target.
Waterworth almost took advantage of time and space afforded on 29 minutes by a defensive lapse but Tuffey produced strong hands and a smart save to stop the drilled shot.
Burns’ dragback and pass into the path of Sykes presented the midfielder an opening but space inside the packed penalty area proved tight and he had to rush his shot, with Carroll enjoying a comfortable stop.
The second half sparked into life within seconds of the whistle as Jordan Stewart twisted and turned inside the box but Tuffey was on hand to make another fine save.
Marshall then whipped over a cross from the right flank but Mitchell was the wrong side of the upright and unable to direct towards the target.
Substitute Andy McGrory - who replaced Andrew Hall in the first half due to the latter’s hamstring problem - proved in the right place to block a back-post header from Cameron Stewart.
Carroll produced a quality save on the hour mark to push away a fierce long-range drive by Sammy Clingan.
Simon Kelly came close to an equaliser but his header from Burns’ corner-kick dropped the wrong side of the target.
Linfield captain Haughey produced two key blocks in quick succession over the closing moments to slide in and divert past the post a low McGrory cross then hack away Kelly’s header following another dangerous Burns’ corner-kick.
That defensive work arrived either side of a glorious opening for Marshall but he could only hook over the bar after that combination of Burns and Kelly carved out another chance.
GLENAVON: Tuffey, Burns, Kelly, Doyle (Griffin, 89), Marshall, Mitchell, Hall (McGrory, 36), Sykes, Clingan, Daniels (Hamilton, 83), Singleton.
Subs (not used): O’Mahony, Lindsay.
LINFIELD: Carroll, Stafford, C.Stewart (Burns, 62; Rooney, 84), Haughey, Waterworth, Lowry, J.Stewart (Millar, 79), Clarke, Casement, Garrett, Quinn.
Subs (not used): Robinson, Mitchell.