Cliftonville v Linfield: Who will hold title nerve?
Tommy Breslin grasps the importance of tomorrow's Solitude showdown with Linfield but he doesn't believe it's 'do or die' for his men.
A Blues win will catapult David Jeffrey's side EIGHT points clear at the summit of the Danske Bank Premiership – a considerable gap that would demand a fightback of epic proportions.
But the reigning champions aren't in the mood to let the Gibson Cup slip from their grasp without a fight and last weekend's League Cup triumph over Crusaders has seen the players rediscover their appetite for silverware.
"It's an important game as we are coming close to single figures with regard to the number of games left," said Reds chief Breslin, who has no major injury concerns in his squad as Stephen Garrett returns to reserve team action.
"After this match there will be 11 games left and time will be slipping away.
"Obviously the ideal result for us is a win and the next best outcome is a draw.
"If we lose the game we will be disappointed but I would say there are still 33 points still to play for and I'm feeling confident going into the game.
"We have a reasonable record against Linfield at Solitude and I want us to ignore the pressures and play our normal game. If we can get the result we want it will keep the title race interesting. Linfield have been in brilliant form and the league table reflects that but in most of our matches we have been performing pretty well too."
There's a spring in the step of the Reds players after their penalty shootout win over Crusaders. You can imagine how low the Reds would have felt if they had lost that battle – a derby which came on the back of a league defeat at home to Portadown and Irish Cup loss to Coleraine.
But the team pulled their season back from the brink and three points tomorrow would leave them really breathing down the necks of Jeffrey and co.
"Momentum is a big thing in football," added Breslin.
"It's always great to win trophies but whereas in the past Cliftonville would have been happy with one trophy a season I feel we should have higher ambitions.
"I think we can be better than that. I want to see the hunger, desire and determination grow in the team."
With the transfer window about to slam shut this evening, it appears that Cliftonville won't see any vultures swoop in and steal star strikers Joe Gormley and Liam Boyce. Everything can change in the final, frantic few hours before the window closes but it looks like Irish League defences won't be given any rest-bite at Solitude.
Gormley has agreed a contract extension and even though Boyce still has ambitions to secure full-time football, he has told the club if that dream is not realised he is happy to stay with the Reds.
"I have faith in the squad and sometimes when you bring in a player at this stage, even if they are talented players, it can give you a few more selection headaches you don't need," added Breslin.
"Joe (Gormley) has signed his extension and unless there's a deal at the last moment for Liam he will stay with us for the rest of the season.
"He's keen to secure full-time football and no-one would be happier than me if he could do that, but we will speak to him again and there will come a point when the club will need to know where it stands as we plan for the future.
"Liam's contract expires in the summer but there's a verbal agreement that if a full-time move doesn't materialise he is happy to stay with us. He's enjoying his football here and we are delighted he's with us. Maybe we will talk again in a month's time to get his thoughts on the future."
Pain of defeat is extra motivation for Blues' return
By Stuart McKinley
Despite all the success he has enjoyed as manager of Linfield – nine league titles, seven Irish Cups and 14 other trophies along the way during his 17 years in charge at Windsor Park – David Jeffrey remembers the bad times just as much as the good.
An Irish League runners-up medal hangs on the end of a chain that garners his match-day suit, not a winners' one. It's to remind him how awful it feels to finish in second place.
As far as significant dates go April 23, 2005 is one that stands out for the Blues boss – again not one that supporters recall with delight.
That's Morgan Day to Glentoran fans, the day that former Linfield striker Chris scored the decisive goal in a Big Two match and at the same time snatched the league title out of the grasp of their bitter rivals.
There is a more recent date in the calendar that, when he thinks about it, causes pain for Jeffrey too.
Just nine weeks ago, on Saturday November 30 2013, Linfield went to Cliftonville with a 19-match unbeaten run behind them.
The Blues' record wasn't just broken, it was smashed as Cliftonville battered them, with the defending champions showing that they won't give up their title easily by winning 3-0 – and given the home side's dominance it could have been a much heavier defeat than that.
That, as much as anything else, will be a huge motivating factor for Jeffrey when he takes his team back to Solitude tomorrow afternoon for a crunch battle between the teams currently first and second in the Premiership.
"It is a massive game for us, especially after our last performance at Solitude," said Jeffrey.
"We have got to turn up for this game and do a lot better.
"That is the challenge for the players and for us all; there is no doubt that we didn't give a decent account of ourselves in the last game there."
Linfield's response to that disastrous day at Solitude has been to go on another unbeaten run, this time nine games long and that's the team that Jeffrey wants to see turn up this time.
"We have to go there and show that we have kicked on from the last performance," said Jeffrey.
"We have been on a fantastic run and the players have done superbly well."
If Linfield are to stretch their lead at the top of the Premiership to eight points, rather than potentially have it cut to just two, they will have to break another run.
The artificial surfaces at Solitude and Seaview have yielded very little in the way of points for the Blues, particularly in recent times.
They have only won four times in 17 outings since the Reds and Crusaders had their synthetic pitches put down and it is almost two years since the last of those.
Since then they have lost six of their last seven matches on the plastic.
Jeffrey will have former Glentoran defender Jimmy Callacher in his squad for the first time after a fee was agreed between the clubs to take the player from east Belfast to the south of the city.
"You always need to strengthen and continue to improve but, certainly, Jimmy is a great addition to our squad and I'm absolutely delighted that we now have Jimmy with us," said Jeffrey.
"It's not about a team, but a squad and it's always vital to strengthen the quality in the squad."