Irish Premiership: Commanding Linfield ease past Crusaders to extend lead at top to nine points
Linfield stretched their lead at the top of the Premiership table to nine points with a dominant 4-0 win over toothless Crusaders at Windsor Park.
Jimmy Callacher opened the scoring after 90 seconds with a header that deflected in off team-mate Mark Haughey's arm.
Andy Waterworth doubled the lead on 50 minutes before Callacher made it three and Stephen Fallon grabbed the fourth.
The Crues, ineffective throughout, had Howard Beverland sent off late on.
The defeat leaves the fourth-placed north Belfast men 11 points behind the leaders but with a game in hand on the title holders.
Linfield, who have now played a game more than most of the chasing pack, are nine points ahead of Glentoran, who are away to Glenavon on Saturday.
David Healy's men have now won all four league games during February after suffering a 3-1 defeat away to Larne at the end of January.
For Crusaders, however, it is now three losses in a row after losing the League Cup final to Coleraine at the same venue last Saturday.
The Blues almost took the lead directly from the corner that led to their opening goal, with visiting keeper Gerard Doherty only able to punch clear from Kirk Millar's dangerous in-swinger.
The ball fell to Millar again and another accurate cross was met at the back post by Callacher, whose downward header seemed to loop off his central defensive partner Haughey and in past Doherty.
Waterworth continued his excellent recent goalscoring form by getting the second goal five minutes after the interval, blasting in from close range after the hesitant visiting defence twice failed to clear following a great left-wing run and cut-back from Joel Cooper.
It was a 19th goal of the season for Waterworth and a sixth in four matches for a striker who has won a regular place in the Linfield starting line-up in recent weeks.
If there was some confusion over Callacher's first goal, there was no doubt about his second as he lost marker Jordan Owens and powered home a close-range header from another pinpoint Millar corner in the 64th minute.
Beverland was sent off for a second yellow card for a foul on substitute Shayne Lavery three minutes from time before Fallon rounded off the scoring in injury time with a well-placed side-foot finish from a clever Cooper pass.
Crusaders were second best in the opening stages of a scrappy first half, played on a heavy surface, and it was the 23rd minute before they first threatened through Paul Heatley.
The winger went on a good run down the left but his angled shot lacked power and was easily saved at the near post by Rohan Ferguson.
Stephen Baxter's side came close to equalising with their best chance of the match five minutes before the interval when Owens twice won headers in the box, flicking it on to Rodney Brown whose header was tipped on to the crossbar by Ferguson.
Baxter changed shape to a 4-4-2 at half time, with Jordan Forsythe replacing Philip Lowry in midfield at the interval, and they looked brighter at the start of the second half before Waterworth's goal regained the momentum for the hosts.
In a title race that has been extremely tight for many weeks, the reigning champions now have a bigger lead than anyone at the top has held for most of the campaign.