Cliftonville 2 - 0 Coleraine: Reds turn up the heat in title bid
Cliftonville took advantage of Linfield's day off to narrow the gap at the top of the table with a comfortable victory over out of form Coleraine at a rainswept Solitude.
Though the weather elements, which had put paid to the Blues' scheduled Windsor Park joust with Glenavon, were just as prevalent in north Belfast, no questions were ever likely to be posed about the champions' 3G surface as Tommy Breslin's side moved to within three points of the summit thanks to a commanding first-half performance.
Goals from Liam Boyce – who had missed a penalty with just two minutes on the clock – and in-form Martin Donnelly stretched Cliftonville's unbeaten streak to 13 Premiership matches, while the beleaguered Bannsiders were left to reflect on an astonishing NINTH consecutive defeat.
"We knew it would be tough but we set about our task early on and got the rewards for it," said Breslin.
"The wind and rain made things difficult for both teams, so it was always likely to come down to who coped best and I was pleased with the football we were able to play, especially in the first-half.
"We didn't really hit the heights we would have liked after the break but, at 2-0 up, I suppose it was just a case of being professional and making sure we got three important points," added the Reds boss, who secured central defender Marc Smyth on a contract extension after the game.
The hosts were handed a golden opportunity to take the lead with barely 70 seconds on the clock when David Ogilby's trip on former Coleraine midfielder Barry Johnston earned a spot-kick, which Boyce – on target from 12 yards against Crusaders on Boxing Day – stepped up to take, only for goalkeeper Gregg Shannon to guess the right way and turn the ball behind for a corner.
Undeterred, Cliftonville built on their early dominance and Martin Murray sent a powerful header just over the top before playing a key role in the move which saw the deadlock broken on 10 minutes.
After stepping in to break down a Coleraine attack, Murray's forward surge ended with a pass into the feet of Joe Gormley and, when his attempt was kept out by Shannon, Boyce was perfectly placed to stroke home.
The lively Murray was in the thick of the action again shortly afterwards when his deflected cross looped over the keeper and on to the crossbar, while Gormley lashed just wide of the mark after some questionable defending from the visitors.
A second Reds goal always looked likely and it duly arrived midway through the half when Boyce touched possession into Donnelly's path and he worked some space for himself before smashing an unstoppable strike from distance which gave Shannon no chance.
The second period provided little in the way of entertainment, but it could have been a very different story had Cliftonville keeper Conor Devlin not made a fine save to keep out a vicious Ruairi Harkin free-kick – which, rather tellingly, proved Coleraine's only shot on target over the 90 minutes.
That said, Oran Kearney's side did look more threatening than their opponents after the interval but were simply unable to negotiate a path beyond an organised Reds defence which was forced into a brace of changes following quickfire injuries to Ronan Scannell and Eamonn Seydak.
Murray twice tested his luck as Cliftonville sought the third goal that would have made sure of things but, despite that security strike not forthcoming, the Bannsiders never looked likely to turn things around.
Reds defender Jaimie McGovern produced the man of the match performance, relishing every second of his physical tussle with Eoin Bradley and he was integral to the Reds' clean sheet.
The home win did nothing to lift the spirits of beleaguered Bannsiders boss Oran Kearney (pictured).
"We're in a relegation dogfight and I make no bones about that," admitted Kearney afterwards.
Coleraine are now four points behind third bottom Warrenpoint.
Kearney added: "A lot of our players had off-days today and, though that's the sort of thing that happens in football, you can't come to a place like Solitude, only turn up for 45 minutes and expect to get a result. Our second-half performance was good but the damage had already been done.
"We spoke to the players six weeks ago telling them they were playing for their futures at the club. I don't know if some of them have already thrown the towel in – but I can tell you, if some of them have gone soft and aren't up for the battle, I certainly am."
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, R Scannell, Johnston, Donnelly, Seydak, Smyth, Catney, Gormley, Murray, Boyce. Subs: McMullan (for Seydak, 61 mins), O'Carroll, Curran, Cosgrove (for Scannell, 48 mins), Doherty (Murray, 80 mins).
COLERAINE: Shannon, McIlmoyle, Hegarty, Douglas, Ogilby, Harkin, Carson, Canning, E Bradley, Watt, J Bradley. Subs: Owens (for Watt, 60 mins), Browne (for Carson, 51 mins), Moore, McMullan, Drummond.
Referee: Andrew Davey (Bangor).