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Cliftonville have eyes fixed on automatic European place after finally climbing league table

Cliftonville 5 Carrick Rangers 0

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Red hot: Michael McCrudden netted a hat-trick on Saturday

Red hot: Michael McCrudden netted a hat-trick on Saturday

Red hot: Michael McCrudden netted a hat-trick on Saturday

Paddy McLaughlin believes the frantic nature of the Premiership's post-split schedule means every team in the top half of the table is firmly in the mix for automatic European qualification.

While eight points separate the trio battling for the title at the summit, second placed Glentoran lead Crusaders in sixth by 10 ahead of a dramatic finale that will see all six sides lock horns with one another.

Only the top two are guaranteed a continental berth - Champions League and Conference League, respectively - but third could yet carry an automatic ticket to Europe depending on who lifts the Irish Cup at the end of next month.

After seeing his Cliftonville outfit climb to fourth courtesy of Saturday's 5-0 defeat of Carrick Rangers at Solitude, boss McLaughlin said: "The boys have been superb since the turn of the year but it seemed that no matter how many games we won or how many points we got, we never seemed to move position in the league.

"We've finally jumped up a position but there's still a lot to play for and a lot of big games coming up after the split. They'll be five really tough matches. We know all about each other and it's all to play for now.

"We've put ourselves in a good position going into the split and hopefully we can close in on second and third place.

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"We know second definitely gets you into Europe and third is a possibility, so we're closing in on those positions and are hitting top form at the right time of year."

One man certainly in top form is Michael McCrudden, whose hat-trick on Saturday was his third treble of a season that started with many observers questioning his place in the Cliftonville team.

"He's on fire at the minute and we're seeing the true Michael McCrudden," added McLaughlin, whose side's tally was boosted by finishes from Garry Breen and Barry Coffey.

"With the class that he has, it was only a matter of time before it started to shine through and it's shining through at the minute and long may it continue."

Opposite number Niall Currie was less than impressed with his side's display and warned his players their futures are on the line.

"All of them are out of contract at the end of the season and I'm not getting any letters from Premiership clubs looking to sign them," he said.

"At the same time, performances like this - and we've had plenty of them - mean I can hardly go to my chairman and justify trying to get new contracts for them to stay at the club."

CLIFTONVILLE: McCarey, Breen, O'Connor, R Curran, McCrudden, Foster, Donnelly (McGuinness, 46 mins), Bagnall (Coffey, 13 mins), Hale (Casey, 75 mins), Lowe, Kearns. Unused subs: Dunne, Hyland, O'Brien, Teggart.

CARRICK: Hogg, Forsythe (Smith, 46 mins), Neale (Loughran, 46 mins), Rodgers (Glendinning, 58 mins), Chapman, Kelly, Cherry, Gibson, Anderson, Ramsey, Cathair Friel. Unused subs: Connor Friel, Kalla, Jenkins, McMullan.

Referee: Jamie Robinson (Portadown)

Man of the match: Michael McCrudden

Match rating: 7/10.


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