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Marc Smyth says Cliftonville's starting XI is the best in the league

Marc Smyth says Cliftonville's starting XI is the best in the league

Photo-William Cherry/Presseye

Marc Smyth says Cliftonville's starting XI is the best in the league

Cliftonville can finally smell Gibson Cup glory for the second year running but even if their title dreams are shattered at the death, Marc Smyth maintains the current champions are the best team in the Danske Bank Premiership.

Even though Linfield still have a fighting chance of gatecrashing the Solitude party, it's difficult to argue with the centre-back's assessment.

The Reds have scored more goals and conceded less than any of their rivals and when their starting XI is firing on all cylinders, no-one else can touch them.

Joe Gormley and Liam Boyce have terrorised defences all season but while the goalgetters net all the glory, Ryan Catney and Barry Johnston represent the strongest central midfield partnership in the league while the boys at the back and keeper Conor Devlin have now beaten Crusaders' impressive defensive record.

Linfield deserve huge credit for remaining within striking distance of the champions but even many of their own supporters will admit that the Reds are an awesome force.

Blues boss David Jeffrey and his side may have the last laugh but they need favours from Portadown this afternoon and Crusaders on Saturday.

Cliftonville have a goal difference advantage of 12 over their rivals as well as that crucial three points cushion.

Centre-back Smyth knows the Reds can end the title race and order a fresh batch of champagne with victory at Shamrock Park this afternoon but he's wary of a final week horror show.

With Tommy Breslin's side also visiting Crusaders on Saturday, the champions couldn't have asked for a tougher end to their campaign but regardless of how the championship sprint pans out, Smyth believes the players in red are the best.

"I've held the view that we are the best team in the league and have the better players but it's one thing saying that and another going out and proving it," said the Edinburgh man.

"We didn't show it at the start of the season when there was a hangover after the Champions League games.

"We weren't the best team then but I feel towards the end of the season we have stood up and been counted.

"We deservedly beat Linfield at Windsor Park and showed just how good we are.

"The team that wins the league will deserve to and you can't say anything else because they will have been the most consistent but I believe that on our day we do have the best players and cannot be beaten."

While Gormley and Boyce have been red hot in attack, the Reds rearguard have kept their cool and Smyth is proud of the way the back five have laid the foundation for the lethal finishers to strut their stuff.

"I missed the first quarter of the season but I am very proud with the way we have responded after many wrote us off," said the former Ayr United, Partick Thistle, Airdrie United and Greenock Morton defender.

"Questions were asked and in the run up to the League Cup final those doubts grew but since Christmas we won the Cup, now have the best defensive record in the league, only conceded one goal at home since the turn of the year and can boast eight clean sheets in 10 games.

"We defend from the front as a team but if we can keep the back door shut we know Liam or Joe will score.

"There has been pressure on us but everyone has stood up and answered those questions.

"We believe in ourselves and now we are just 90 minutes away from not only winning the title but making a special bit of history, becoming the first Cliftonville side to retain the league trophy.

"Our sole focus is on beating Portadown and doing what we have to do.

"I know we have two tough games left but if you want to win the league you need to come through them.

"The Ports need to win this game as well and that might work to our advantage as they won't settle for a draw."

Meanwhile, Smyth – like everyone else who cares about Irish League football – is waiting on news of the proposals the Northern Ireland Football League are finalising to secure a brighter future for our game. A move to the summer season is being considered and Smyth says he can see the benefits.

"What's important is bringing more fans to the game and if they are willing to come out in bigger numbers on a summer evening then it's worth considering," said the 31-year-old.

"You would like to think we would have better pitches and bigger crowds when the weather is nicer.

"If clubs can boost their revenues this way then I'm sure they will be supportive of it.

"The right option for me is one that sees the game prosper."

Belfast Telegraph