David Healy’s title holders had to wait until 77 minutes to break down a resolute Ballymena at Windsor Park - but a moment of sheer brilliance by the former Motherwell man sent the Blues fans home happy.
It was his 17th goal of the season.
The victory sets Linfield up nicely for what will be a massive ‘Big Two’ derby against bitter rivals Glentoran at the international arena on Monday.
But the Blues certainly didn’t have it all their own way against David Jeffrey’s well-drilled Sky Blues.
Although they were hemmed in for long spells, they were always dangerous on the counter-attack.
The big talking point even before kick-off was the return of influential Blues skipper Jamie Mulgrew, who missed the last six games because of injury - plus midfielder Cammy Palmer, who has been out for an even longer period. Both were named among the Linfield substitutes.
As expected, Healy’s boys bossed possession once Tony Clarke got the action under way and United goalkeeper Jordan Williamson was called into action after only four minutes, getting down smartly to smother a Matty Clarke shot.
Big Manzinga then burst clear on the right and, after cutting inside, he drilled in a low shot from the edge of the box that fizzed wide but appeared to have Williamson flat-footed.
United, happy to absorb the pressure, were dangerous on the break and they created their first tangible chance on 16 minutes when Ross Redman’s cross found the unmarked Paul McElroy, but he completed fluffed his lines when it mattered.
Seconds later, Williamson produced an outstanding save at the other end, somehow getting a strong hand to a stinging low drive from Ahmed Salam to paw the ball past the post.
Then, in a clever move involving defenders Michael Newberry and Trai Hume, the latter looked to have broken the visitors’ resistance only for Steven McCullough to get back to make a telling interception.
The home team had a big appeal for a penalty turned away by referee Clarke when Manzinga went down under a challenge off Dougie Wilson before Kenny Kane’s lung-bursting dash through the middle at the other end appeared to be stopped by a tug of the jersey by Kyle McClean - but, again, the Dungannon official wasn’t interested.
Just before the half-time whistle, Manzinga had the best chance of the half to break the deadlock when put clear by a sublime pass from Salam but the striker’s fierce shot was brilliantly saved by Williamson.
United were almost in front seconds after the break wen a calamity of errors in the home defence allowed David Parkhouse to cut the ball back to McElroy, whose shot was somehow smuggled off the line by Hume.
And the Sky Blues again came within inches of breaking the deadlock on 50 minutes when Kane curled in a beauty from the edge of the box, only to see his shot crash back off the post with Chris Johns totally beaten.
With his boys faltering in front of goal, Healy decided to make the change, introducing Mulgrew and Palmer. And it almost paid an instant dividend with Salam almost finding the bottom corner with a thundering low drive that brought another smart save from Williamson.
The Blues were rewarded for the dominance with 13 minutes remaining. Hume’s delicious pass sent Manzinga charging into the box and, as Williamson dashed off his line, the striker superbly dinked the ball into the empty net.
As the clock ticked down, it took a flying save from Johns to keep out a header from United substitute Ryan Waide, following a cross from McCullough and, in the final minute, Brendan Barr held his head in his hands by blasting a great chance over the top.
LINFIELD: Johns, Hume, Newberry, Callacher, M.Clarke, Shields, Donnelly (Mulgrew, 68), McClean (Palmer, 68), Salam, Stewart, Manzinga (A.Clarke, 79).
Subs (not used): Walsh, Roscoe, Carroll, Archer.
BALLYMENA UNITED: Williamson, Rodgers (Graham, 79), Wilson, Redman, McCullough, McGrory (Bramall, 89), Barr, Millar, McElroy, Parkhouse, Kane (Waide, 79).
Subs (not used): Johnston, Chapman, Henderson, Smith.
REFEREE: Tony Clarke.
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