Belfast Telegraph

Vital clash can either keep Cliftonville in the race or set Linfield on way again

By Steven Beacom

Saturday will provide the biggest game of the season so far in the Irish League when Linfield travel to Cliftonville.

There will be much focus on the Reds because defeat would see them fall 10 points behind the Blues and leave their hopes of defending the title, which they won in style last season, almost non-existent.

Don't forget though this is also a huge clash for Linfield. They may be topping the table by three points from Crusaders and in the middle of a fine run of form, but it is fascinating to note that 17 games into the league campaign, David Jeffrey's men have yet to beat the sides in second, third, fourth and fifth positions.

That's Crusaders, Glentoran, Cliftonville and Portadown to save you looking for a Danske Bank Premiership table.

Jeffrey (pictured) will be keen to put that statistic right.

At the moment you could call the Blues flat track bullies beating the lesser lights with considerable comfort.

Of course what has been a hallmark of Linfield's title winning sides under big Davy is that when the crunch encounters come around, they have tended to raise their game.

Through the years Jeffrey's successful squads have been masters of making it count when it absolutely does.

Jeffrey has some happy memories of success at Solitude, but in recent years his teams have taken thumpings there too.

By earning an away win in north Belfast on Saturday, not only would it make Cliftonville's task almost impossible to bounce back from such a deficit, it would put down a marker that this new look Linfield side are the real deal.

The summer signings that Jeffrey brought in such as Andrew Waterworth and Sean Ward have dovetailed well with established players like Michael Gault and the crop of gifted youngsters at Windsor Park, but questions remain.

Tommy Breslin's Cliftonville, given half a chance, are capable of posing a few more. Liam Boyce has had an indifferent campaign to date, but he has shown signs recently that he is getting back to his brilliant best, which is dangerous for the rest of the Irish League.

If the Reds could add Portadown's transfer listed Kevin Braniff in January and were within striking distance of the top, he, along with Boyce and Joe Gormley would certainly score enough goals to pile the pressure on at the top.

And then there's Crusaders, who are quietly picking up victories, staying in Linfield's slipsteam eager to pounce.

Stephen Baxter is a canny boss. I fancy, unlike previous seasons when they have fallen away, his side are in for the long haul this time. The fact that there's no love lost between the Blues and Crues at present only adds to the mix.

This could prove to be one of the toughest titles to win in Jeffrey's outstanding managerial career. Saturday's match will be key to his hopes of landing a TENTH crown as boss.

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