The race for the Danske Bank Premiership was thrown wide open on Saturday when Cliftonville rediscovered their championship winning form of last season to convincingly beat Linfield at Solitude.
Linfield made the trip from south to north Belfast with a three point cushion at the head of the league but came up well short as two goals from Joe Gormley, either side of a Barry Johnston strike, meant that the Blues are now displaced by Crusaders at the summit on goal diference.
A near capacity crowd watched as Cliftonville fired straight out of the blocks like a team that knew a loss to their great rivals would mean a ten point gap opening and, almost certainly, any chance of them retaining the Gibson Cup disappearing. Liam Boyce signalled his intent after only a minute when he headed wide and the former Werder Bremen striker then opened up the Linfield defence with a trade mark flick that sent Martin Murray through on goal but his shot was well saved by Jonny Tuffey.
The Linfield stopper was to be the busier keeper for the first half with opposite number Conor Devlin’s major contribution to proceedings being a long clearance that lead to the opening goal on 32 minutes. Again it was Boyce who caused the problems as he rose to head the ball onto strike partner Gormley who further nodded the ball goal wards and then rifled home on the run to give Tuffey no chance.
The Cliftonville front two were in irresistible form and Boyce only narrowly failed to double the lead two minutes before the break as Barry Johnston’s superb dummy totally deceived the Blues defence. The ball came through for Boyce and his sublime turn and shot deserved a goal but was parried by Tuffey who done well to bounce back up and gather at the feet of the onrushing Marty Murray.
Linfield needed a response and they started the second half in much better fashion with James Knowles hooking a volley over after only two minutes and Mark McAllister finally making Devlin work with a smart save shortly afterwards. Andrew Waterworth’s cross on 53 minutes was begging to be tapped in but no one had gambled and made the run that would have surely seen an equaliser for the visitors.
There was cause to regret such profligacy only two minutes later when Barry Johnston’s bullet shot doubled the host’s advantage after Murray’s shot from a corner had been blocked.
Games between the sides are often fiery affairs and tempers reached boiling on 69 minutes when Michael Gault flew into a tackle on Ryan Catney and was instantly confronted by Catney’s midfield partner, Barry Johnston. An ugly mêlée ensued involving players from both sides and when referee Raymond Etherington finally brought order to proceedings he dispatched straight reds to Gault and Johnston to leave both sides to play out the remaining twenty minutes with ten men.
With Linfield pushing to get back in the game it left them light at the back and they were punished on 81 minutes as another long ball was gathered by Boyce and his precise cross was tapped home by Gormley for his 21st goal of the season. The result means that Linfield have lost two of their last three in the league and Cliftonville have moved within four points of the leaders with the busy Christmas period to come.
Paul Heatley turned in another impressive performance as Crusaders brushed aside Ards at Clandeboye Park with the winger having a hand in all three first half goals that sent his team on the way to a 4-1 victory. Firstly the former Carrick Rangers player was alert to pounce on some hesitant Ards defending to get away a shot that could only be parried into the path of Gary McCutcheon who finished with customary aplomb.
Heatley then crossed for Jordan Owens to head home on 26 minutes and only a minute later added his own name to the score sheet as he slotted the third after some more indecisiveness at the back from the home side. McCutcheon put the icing on the cake six minutes into the second half when he curled in from the edge of the area. Ards grabbed a consolation on 62 minutes as Neil Dougan finished off a well worked move but it was all his side could muster as their third loss in a row sees them slip to bottom place in the league.
Portadown moved to within a point of fourth placed Glentoran as they defeated the east Belfast side in front of Sky’s cameras on Monday night in the Oval. Gary Twigg got his fourteenth league goal of the season to open the scoring shortly after the break. Darren Murray doubled the lead as he converted a penalty at the second attempt with five minutes to go to bring the Glens eight match unbeaten streak in the league to an end.
Warrenpoint Town are off the bottom as they defeated Coleraine 2-1 while Ballymena chalked up their fourth straight win with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Ballinamallard United.
Dungannon Swifts also continued their great run of form as they notched their third win in a row with a 3-1 win away to Glenavon.