Cliftonville smashed Linfield’s unbeaten record to reignite their own title aspirations in a heart-stopping showdown at Solitude on Tuesday night.
A James Knowles penalty put the Reds in front and, though Paul Smyth levelled for the Blues early in the second-half, parity lasted all of two minutes as Jay Donnelly’s header earned the hosts a win that means just four points separate the top four sides in the standings.
Content with their respective results over the weekend, neither boss saw fit to make any changes to their starting XIs, with a single amendment on each bench the height of any managerial tinkering.
Having chopped and changed his line-up for Saturday’s 4-0 win over Ballinamallard United, Linfield chief Healy welcomed Ross Gaynor back from suspension with the former Cork City ace replacing striker Marc Bright among the substitutes.
Gerard Lyttle likewise kept faith with the team that had accounted for Ards three days earlier, although rookie midfielder Gary Donnelly had to concede his place in the panel to accommodate Ryan Catney’s spot among the hosts’ back-up options.
The Blues made the short journey to north Belfast intent on not only preserving the Premiership’s last remaining unbeaten record, but also overtaking Crusaders at the top of the standings.
Ballymena United’s last-gasp victory over the Crues on Saturday opened the door for Linfield – who had suffered Irn Bru Cup and NI Football League Cup exits in the matches immediately before seeing off the Mallards – to climb to the summit but stood in their way was a Cliftonville side with six wins from their previous seven outings and who knew that a victory of their own would catapult them right into the title mix.
The Blues should have taken the lead after just five minutes but, from a teasing Sammy Clingan free-kick, Mark Haughey – arguably being fouled by Tomas Cosgrove at the time – was unable to make a telling connection as goalkeeper Peter Burke gathered.
Jimmy Callacher blocked a Martin Donnelly attempt at the other end before Jaimie McGovern’s vital touch deflected Ross Clarke’s goalbound shot after some smart play from Paul Smyth.
Reds skipper Jason McGuinness should have opened the scoring on 21 minutes only to be caught seemingly unaware by Martin Donnelly’s delivery.
The deadlock was broken on the half-hour when a tangle of legs between Matthew Clarke and Daniel Hughes saw the latter take a tumble and, after referee Raymond Hetherington pointed to the penalty spot, James Knowles stepped up to convert against his former employers.
Jay Donnelly went close to doubling Cliftonville’s advantage but Callacher’s touch did enough to drag his shot across the face of goal and behind for a corner – which, following a bit of confusion with ref Hetherington appearing to forget which side the ball had gone out on, was eventually taken and came to nothing.
The Blues were level shortly after the turnaround when Ross Clarke’s near post delivery was seized upon by Smyth who, despite his pint-sized stature, got there before home keeper Burke to nod home.
The momentum appearing to have swung their way, Healy’s men found themselves behind almost instantly as Jay Donnelly restored the home lead.
Jude Winchester and Ruairi Harkin kept things neat and tidy on the edge of the area and, once possession had been dispatched to Hughes wide on the left, his first-time cross was turned home by Donnelly.
Thereafter, the majority of chances fell the visitors’ way – but they found Burke in unbeatable form.
After doing well to stop a Ross Clarke delivery from sneaking in, he was at his acrobatic best to save Sammy Clingan’s free-kick and threw himself down to stop another Clarke attempt.
The closest Linfield came to forcing a point was with nine minutes left on the clock when Burke’s punch forced a goalmouth scramble that looked set to end with Haughey levelling – only for the keeper to produce an outstanding flying stop that ultimately proved sufficient to earn his side victory.
Lyttle could continue taking to the stands as Reds aim to make up ground in title race
Gerard Lyttle admits he's not sure about returning to the Cliftonville dugout this evening. Though his three-game touchline ban expired with Saturday's Danske Bank Premiership victory over Ards, Lyttle is conscious that his side won every match in his absence without conceding a single goal.
Add in the fact that family commitments kept him away from last month's 3-0 win at Portadown and suddenly Lyttle's assistant, Mal Donaghy, could well find himself back in the hotseat when Linfield visit Solitude tonight.
"If it's not broke, don't fix it - that's what they say, isn't it?" laughs Lyttle.
"I don't want to rake over old ground because what's done is done, but I felt the length of the suspension was a wee bit harsh. It's over and done with now, though, and, even though I'm free to return to the touchline, I'm not 100 per cent sure about it at the minute.
"I've watched the last two home matches from the stand and you actually get a better view of things up there in terms of how things are unfolding tactically, so I might stay up there. Mal's stepped up and won three out of three against Carrick, Annagh and Ards over the past week and a half and we've not conceded any goals. I'd hate to be the one to jinx that by coming back to the dugout!"
Saturday's defeat of Ards was Cliftonville's sixth win in their last seven games and, though their recent north Belfast derby loss to Crusaders - when the Reds contrived to throw away a three-goal advantage in a hectic final 25 minutes at Seaview - was a major setback, Lyttle's side can climb to within four points of the summit with victory tonight.
They would also move to within touching distance of the Blues, who remain the Premiership's last remaining unbeaten side following the Crues' dramatic loss to Ballymena United at the weekend.
The champions' Showgrounds setback means David Healy's men would be elevated to top spot if they can see off the Reds, whose manager is expecting a fierce battle.A Twitter List by BelTel
"It's going to be a very tough game, that much is obvious," says Lyttle.
"Linfield have started the season very well. As well as good results, they've had good performances too, so they'll be confident of their chances of coming to Solitude and continuing that.
"Our own form has been good, too, and the players are looking forward to the game.
"It's going to be a big test for us but these are the matches you want to be playing in - under the lights, big crowd, good atmosphere. It'll attract a few neutrals too because that's the kind of game it is."
Inconsistent for the most part this term, Cliftonville look to have turned a corner over the last six weeks or so and have been playing arguably the best football of Lyttle's tenure.
Having tweaked the system and made some big adjustments to his line-up, the Reds boss has watched his side click into form and, though they ultimately came away empty-handed, their display in the first 65 minutes of that derby duel with Crusaders provided the most telling evidence yet that Lyttle's charges are soaring in confidence.
"I've been saying for a while that we're getting nearer to where we want to be," he adds.
"We're not there yet but I think the progress we're making has been obvious. Things didn't go for us because we were too easy to score against and at times we were gifting teams goals. We have worked hard to cut that out and, with the attacking players we have in the team, we know we can give anyone a game.
"Over the past wee while we've been on a good run and, even though we lost to the Crues in the middle of it, there were still big positives to take out of our performance that day.
"We didn't allow losing the match to throw us off course. In our next game we started on the front foot and have continued on from there. I wanted the players to have belief in themselves and I think you can see they've got that now.
"Obviously Linfield are one of the toughest teams you can face, but we're in a better position to take them on now than we would have been earlier in the season."