By George Willoughby
New Saints fans have the head of Blaine Hudson to thank as the big center-half headed home late on to secure a one goal advantage heading into next week’s Europa League second qualifying round return leg.
Lincoln Red Imps made the journey from Gibraltar and they gave a really good account of themselves. An away goal for their efforts was the least the travelling side deserved.
The side from Gibraltar made the better start with some patient ball retention, and they looked to have settled into the game nicely. However, The New Saints were able to find a breakthrough after just six minutes, through striker Dean Ebbe.
It was clear that the home side had an early game-plan of exploiting the channels with the pace they had in the form of Ebbe and Jamie Mullan. The pair combined for the opener when Mullan put in a great cross and an excellent first touch allowed Ebbe to volley through keeper Manuel Soler.
The goal was quite contentious as the ball seemed to have gone out of play before Mullan was able to play the ball in. However, the officials ruled it as a fair goal and the hosts went in-front.
You would have thought that the Saints would have asserted themselves on the game after taking the lead, but the away side responded in impressive fashion.
A sublime delivery from a free-kick on the left-hand side of the pitch was met expertly by Joseph Chipolina. His powerful header was too much for Paul Harrison in the TNS goal and the scores were level once again.
The last meaningful chance of the game came through substitute Greg Draper. He showed good improvisation to try and chip Soler from close range. His effort was well saved over the bar and nothing came from the resulting corner.
An entertaining first 45 minutes came to a close with the score-line still level. Goals from Ebbe and Chipolina made things very interesting for the second-half.
Much like the start of the first-half, Lincoln Red Imps looked very composed on the ball and played it around nicely. They were not able to create many chances on an attacking front, but from a footballing perspective it was nice to see some persistent possession play.
Mullan was involved again, doing all he could to create opportunities for his side, but when it came down to his own finishing, he was wasteful and will be disappointed not have grabbed himself at least one goal.
Chris Marriott put in a beautiful cross and it looked harder to miss for Mullan. He got to the cross on the full, but he volleyed over when it looked a certain goal.
The home fans were fearing the worst when another great opportunity went begging. Greg Draper rounded the keeper and squared for Daniel Redmond. His first-time effort was cleared off the line and the frustration increased for the players, manager and fans.
In the 79th minute the Red Imps substitute Juanma Juanma could have made the perfect impact. Again, another great set-piece delivery went into the danger zone and three Red Imps players were queuing up to meet it. From the six-yard line Juanma headed straight into the palms of Harrison.
As the game reached the 83rd minute, The New Saints restored their lead through an unlikely source. Center-half Blaine Hudson popped up at a vital time and capitalized on the Red Imps’ inability to clear their lines. The ball was headed back across goal and Hudson reacted the quickest and he guided his header into the back of the net.
Draper should have extended the Saints’ lead when Kane Lewis set him up perfectly in the box. The striker attempted to volley home, but it was well clear of the goal.
In summary, The New Saints deserved to win the match. However, they will be kicking themselves not to have won by a greater margin. On the other hand, Lincoln Red Imps have every right to be pleased with their performance. They will return home with only a one goal deficit to overturn and an away goal.
The second leg is very nicely poised and it is all to play for in Gibraltar.
Full-Time TNS 2-1 Lincoln Red Imps
Ebbe (6′), Chipolina (31′), Hudson (83′)
Referee: Thorvaldur Arnason