Cliftonville defender heaps pressure on Linfield
Cliftonville 1 Linfield 0: Take it as Red – this title race is going right to the wire. Already, the post-split battle between Linfield and Cliftonville at Windsor Park is looking as tasty as anything Nigella Lawson can rustle up.
Tommy Breslin's men have rediscovered their appetite for the Gibson Cup chase.
A week is a long time in football. Questions were asked of the Solitude men after their home league defeat to Portadown and Irish Cup loss at Coleraine.
But within seven days, Cliftonville retained the League Cup with that thrilling penalty shoot-out win over Crusaders and then beat Linfield 1-0 on Saturday to thrust themselves right back into the title race.
The Blues missed a golden opportunity to record a win which would have sent them eight points clear and perhaps suck the confidence out of the champions.
But the Reds' character and spirit shone through for the second Saturday in a row and they now have momentum and fresh belief ahead of the journey to Ballymena United tomorrow night.
David Jeffrey's side were up for the physical battle and played with enough aggression but they didn't land a knockout blow on the hosts.
A lapse of concentration at a free-kick severely punished them as Marc Smyth became the unlikely goalscoring hero in a side that boasts Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley in attack.
And the Blues shot themselves in the foot when Robert Garrett left his studs high on Smyth just two minutes after the goal.
Linfield could have had a penalty when Ronan Scannell handled the ball on the ground – an incident Jeffrey was keen to highlight after the game – but referee Arnold Hunter, who was displaying more cards than the supermarkets at Christmas, waved play on.
It was feisty and on occasions naughty and cynical but Garrett's challenge fell into the reckless and stupid category.
Linfield's lead at the top has been cut to two points. Now their players are being asked the questions after centre-back Smyth sneaked ahead of Michael Gault and hooked the ball home with his left foot following Martin Donnelly's excellent free-kick in the 64th minute.
"Linfield are still favourites to win the title for me – it's theirs to lose," said Smyth in the manner of a man who knows how minds games work.
"If we had signed three players who have played in the Scottish Premier League we would win the league, hands down. That shows you the strength and quality that you are bringing in but we have something different in there.
"We have players that fight for each other and players that want to win titles.
"The Blues should have had the league won. If we had been playing Ards to go seven points clear and then faced Linfield the week after we would have had the league won as we would have won both games."
Tough talking from Smyth but the champions, who gave loan signing Jude Winchester a run out in the last 25 minutes, have fought like tigers in their last two assignments.
Ten yellow cards and one red were shown in the bruising battle. The goal was the game's decisive moment but keeper Conor Devlin made a smart stop from Andy Waterworth in the 22nd minute.
Jamie Mulgrew's shot floated wide, while Billy Joe Burns' effort was blocked by Barry Johnston and Boyce should have done better when he raced clear near the end.
Jeffrey was left in a rage when Scannell went unpunished after handling a Niall Quinn cross three minutes after the restart.
"Ronan controlled the ball with his hand and it's absolutely clear," said Jeffrey.
"It was a stonewall penalty and at worst, we should have had a share of the spoils. I can't fathom how that wasn't given.
"We are talking about thin lines and we gave away a silly free-kick and left a man unmarked."
He added defiantly: "This time last season we were well and truly out of the title race but not this time round."
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, R Scannell, Johnston, McMullan, Donnelly, Smyth, Catney, Gormley, Murray, Boyce. Subs: Caldwell (for Donnelly, 83 mins), O'Carroll, Seydak, Winchester (for Gormley, 69 mins), Curran (for Murray, 54 mins).
LINFIELD: Tuffey, Gault, Haughey, Waterworth, Carvill, BJ Burns, Ward, Garrett, Mulgrew, Sproule, Quinn. Subs: McVey, Thompson (for Burns, 90 mins), Ross Glendinning, McAllister (Carvill, 69 mins), R Clarke (for Sproule, 69 mins).
Referee Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge).