Linfield 3 Cliftonville 1
Linfield’s title dream is still alive. The champions displayed their character and mettle at Windsor Park on Tuesday — now its over to Cliftonville.
The league leaders, six points clear of Crusaders and 10 in front of the Blues with a game in hand on both their Belfast rivals, still hold their fate in their hands.
But this defeat to David Jeffrey’s side will see the pressure cranked up a little and nerves will jangle a little bit more.
And since the Cliftonville players have not been down this road before when it comes to getting across the line in a championship chase, fans of rival clubs will believe the race is back on.
The 3,400 strong crowd anticipated an explosive showdown and it lived up to expectations.
It was only a third league defeat for the north-Belfast side while an away win would have crushed Linfield’s title hopes — a reality that Jeffrey and his players didn’t need reminded of.
“Do you think they wouldn’t have?” replied Jeffrey when he was asked whether his players sensed it was an important game in the title race.
“Today was a big day for us and we fought tooth and nail for it. But Cliftonville are a very good side and if they win their game in hand they will be 13 points clear of us.
“Our performance was really about making up for the time we played at Solitude when Cliftonville were excellent but the manner of our performance and the defeat was hard to take.
“I said to the players I thought we had a wee bit of making up to do for that and I thought they did that brilliantly, especially in the first half.
“In the first half an hour I thought we were exhilarating with (Matthew) Tipton and (Mark) McAllister the standout players.”
Two goals in three first half minutes from Tipton fired the Blues to a dream start but the league leaders equalised through Liam Boyce only for Michael Carvill to round off the scoring in the second half. Albert Watson should have broken the deadlock in the 12th minute but his bullet header from Johnny Black’s corner flew wide of the upright.
Then the Tipton show kicked off in the 20th minute. Collecting Watson’s through ball, he skipped past keeper Conor Devlin and just when it appeared he drifted too wide of the goal, powered in a shot which the rushing back George McMullan could only divert into the net.
Three minutes later it was Tipton 2 Cliftonville 0. McAllister headed Black’s header goalwards but the ball was blocked on the goal-line. Tipton pounced to poke the ball home.
The visitors almost fell further behind but McAllister’s powerful volley was matched by a stunning save from Devlin.
Breslin’s men needed inspiration and it arrived in the 34th minute when Boyce raced on to a perfectly weighted pass from Diarmuid O’Carroll and coolly slotted the ball past keeper Alan Blayney.
In the 54th minute Tipton released McAllister who cut the ball back and Carvill produced the clinical finish.
Cliftonville did have the ball in the net in the 73rd minute but O’Carroll was adjudged to be offside shortly after Blayney made an impressive block to foil Boyce.
Blayney denied Barry Johnston from close range and then substitute Joe Gormley powered the ball high over the bar from six yards.
Reds boss Tommy Breslin (pictured) admitted his side were punished for giving away “soft goals.”
“We could have defended a lot better,” he admitted.
“I didn’t agree with the offside decision that denied us a goal and that would have got us right back into the game but sometimes you have to take a bad result on the chin, pick yourself up and carry on.”
LINFIELD: Blayney, Armstrong, Gault, Carvill, BJ Burns, Tipton (Fordyce 85), Mulgrew, Watson, McCaul (Clarke 79), McAllister, Black. Subs (not used): Douglas, Browne, Garrett.
CLIFTONVILLE: Devlin, McGovern, Scannell, Johnston, McMullan, Garrett, Donnelly (Gormley 61), O’Carroll (Lynch 81), Smyth, Catney, Boyce. Subs (not used): Seydak, Cosgrove, O’Kane.
Referee: Arnold Hunter (Maguiresbridge).