Cliftonville beat Linfield to regain top spot
Linfield 1 Cliftonville 3: Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley took their combined goal tally for the season to 59 as Cliftonville completed a clean sweep of Danske Bank Premiership victories over Linfield.
Despite having already recorded 4-2, 3-0 and 1-0 wins against the Blues this term, Tommy Breslin's side know that none of those triumphs – augmented by this latest 3-1 success – will count for anything unless they go on to reclaim the Gibson Cup.
It may not have been do-or-die for the Reds, but this trip to Windsor Park presented the realistic prospect of snuffing their back-to-back title dreams out, with a home win opening up a five-point gap which, with just four rounds of fixtures still to play, would have all but knotted the blue ribbons on the trophy.
The race remains very much alive and, as well as lifting themselves a point clear at the summit, Cliftonville also boosted their goal difference – which could yet prove crucial – by four.
They would have had more if they'd taken their chances but it was Linfield who had the afternoon's first real opportunity as Jimmy Callacher headed off target from a corner.
Andy Waterworth used his pace to trouble an unsettled visiting defence in the early stages but, bit by bit, Cliftonville eased their way into control of proceedings.
Boyce crashed an attempt into the side netting before seeing a pass to strike partner Gormley expertly cut out by Mark Haughey just when the deadlock looked poised to be broken.
The Reds' attacking duo each had further openings come and go before the interval but, evidently instructed to fasten the laces on their shooting boots, they emerged in much less forgiving mood for the second period.
On 48 minutes, the inspirational Chris Curran seized on some sloppy play by Aaron Burns in the centre of the park and, after Boyce had skipped beyond Michael Gault with some neat feet, he exchanged passes with the former Ballinamallard United winger before coolly stroking the ball beyond Jonny Tuffey.
Just over 20 minutes later and as home claims of handball by Curran fell on the deaf ears of referee Raymond Crangle, Cliftonville surged forward to double their advantage – Tuffey saving Gormley's initial effort, the crossbar rescuing Linfield at the second time of asking before the striker made sure at the third time of asking.
Gormley should have netted again shortly afterwards only to blast across the face of goal from a promising position and that miss was Linfield's route back into the contest, with skipper Gault firing home a cracker of a shot almost immediately afterwards.
That swung momentum the hosts' way for a brief spell but they were unable to force keeper Conor Devlin into any kind of meaningful action ahead of opposite number Tuffey once again retrieving the ball from the back of his net when Diarmuid O'Carroll teed Boyce up for his second of the afternoon and 24th of the season.
Three points to Cliftonville and four wins from four against the Blues. They've emerged victorious from all of their battles during this Premiership campaign, but another month will pass before the ultimate winners of the war are crowned.
LINFIELD: Tuffey, Gault, Haughey, Callacher, Waterworth, BJ Burns, A Burns M Clarke, Garrett, Mulgrew, McAllister. Subs: McVey, Thompson, R Clarke (for Garrett, 57 mins), Carvill (for M Clarke, 69 mins), Tipton (for McAllister, 72 mins).
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, Scannell, Johnston, Donnelly, Seydak, Smyth, Catney, Gormley, Curran, Boyce. Subs: Caldwell (for Curran, 88 mins), Garrett (for Donnelly, 79 mins), O'Carroll (for Gormley, 82 mins), Winchester, Murray
Referee: Raymond Crangle (Belfast)
Missed hand-ball proved crucial, says Jeffrey
David Jeffrey believes a big refereeing decision went against his side at a pivotal moment in Saturday's game.
The Linfield boss was adamant that Cliftonville winger Chris Curran had handled inside the penalty area but, with referee Raymond Crangle waving home appeals away, the Reds set off on the counter-attack that produced their second goal.
"I find myself again reflecting on a refereeing decision," said Jeffrey.
"If I am wrong I will hold my hands up but last week we had two very clear decisions which went against us and denied us victory at Coleraine. Today, I think there was a penalty before Cliftonville scored.
"I have spoken with the referee and he has told me that, in the rules of the game, it's down to the referee's opinion. It would appear yet again that a decision has gone against us."
Jeffrey was also frustrated with Linfield's inability to exert any real foothold for long stretches of an eye-catching table-topping affair.
"For the first goal, we gave the ball away cheaply and were punished for it," he added.
"We were then clawing our way back into the game and it was a big blow when the penalty claim was turned down and then they scored.
"The players didn't let their heads drop and Michael Gault scored a fantastic goal. We had other chances but didn't take them and good play from Cliftonville led to the third goal from Liam Boyce – so we are disappointed and frustrated with the outcome."
By contrast, Reds boss Tommy Breslin was thrilled that his players produced such a commanding display to return to the top of the Danske Bank Premiership by just a single point with four fixtures remaining.
"I thought it was a very good performance from us," he said.
"In the first half, we were dominant and I was a bit disappointed that we came in 0-0 at half-time.
"We then got two goals quickly in the second half and than we maybe stopped a bit – but that's perhaps a bit disrespectful to Linfield because you are never going to dominate against them for 90 minutes.
"We were maybe fearing the worst at 2-1 but then we went up the other end and scored the third goal."
Breslin had praise for his whole team but could not resists highlighting some individial efforts.
"I thought Chris Curran was outstanding for us," he added.
"His strength, his runs and his use of the ball was sublime. He is not long back from injury but has really come in to his own in the last few weeks.
"We have real character and ability in this side and, when you have Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley up front then you always have a chance.
"I have said to the players that there is no point coming to Windsor Park and getting three points only to slip up somewhere else down the road.
"That was the benchmark for the next four games and it's down to the players now. We came here for a win and, in my mind, it was never in doubt"