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Cliftonville boss Gray relishing the opportunity to climb into European contention

Cliftonville v Ballymena Utd, Danske Bank Premiership: Solitude, Tonight, 7.45 pm

By Adam McKendry

Cliftonville manager Barry Gray says his side aren't focusing on their Irish Cup semi-final and are still concentrating on reaching third place in the league ahead of tonight's meeting with Ballymena United.

Gray's side are eight points adrift of third-placed Glenavon and also have their last-four clash against Loughgall to later this month.

However, the Reds boss says they aren't putting all their eggs in the Irish Cup basket and are instead looking to make that gap five points with a win tonight at Solitude, where there will be free admission for all fans.

"It's another big game for us, especially with Glenavon and Linfield dropping points at the weekend," Gray stressed.

"Everyone says we should be focusing on the cup but we're not. We're looking at the table, we got a bit of the gap back on Saturday and we'd be mad if we went in tonight not looking to get even more of it back."

However, Gray is exercising caution when it comes to talk about European football for next season, with the Solitude chief instead aiming for his side to continue their good momentum that has seen them win their last three games.

Gray admitted: "We're not afraid to talk about (Europe), we've talked about it in the changing room and we've talked about it in the club.

"Is that a target? Yes. Is it achievable? We'll have to tick that off game by game.

"It's a massive ask, there's no doubt about that because we've given ourselves a massive gap to claw back in the league, but it's about momentum for us at this stage.

"It's about ticking games off and getting wins under our belts, and we've done that in the last three so it's onto tonight and we'll see if we can make it four."

It's the third time of asking for the clash that was abandoned in hurricane conditions in January, then postponed amid further fixture congestion, and unless United win, their chances of a top six finish could be blown away too.

In fact, if they are beaten tonight, Glentoran's top six spot will be secure. Ballymena currently trail Glentoran by seven points with three games left to play before the split.

If Ballymena can keep their hopes alive, it sets up a mammoth clash as the men from the east come to Ballymena on Friday evening before Ballinamallard United head to Warden Street on Monday.

After three desperately disappointing results and displays on their last three outings, David Jeffrey's couldn't have picked a worse time to go off the boil.

"If you look over the season, we still got to two finals but this is the wrong time for the wheels to come off the bus," he said.

"This is the business end of the season, it really is. Ironically last season we were able to push on but since the League Cup defeat we've had one shining light and that was away to Dungannon, other than that…"

  • Crusaders' 3-2 victory over Skenderbeu in the second qualifying round of the 2015/16 Champions League is being investigated by Uefa ethics and disciplinary inspectors as part of a wider probe into match-fixing by the Albanian club.

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