The third offering of Irish League football on Sky this season was an interesting clash between second placed Linfield and third placed Cliftonville. Another Belfast rivalry for the Sky Sports cameras as South Belfast Blues Linfield take on North Belfast Reds Cliftonville. The Blues were 10 points behind league leaders Crusaders after their win on Saturday meanwhile Cliftonville were just a point ahead of fourth placed Coleraine, who have a game in hand, but knew a win tonight would have brought them within 8 points of Linfield and keep their hopes alive for an automatic Europa League qualification spot.
The game took place at Windsor Park, the recently refurbished National Stadium for Northern Ireland. The renovations were completed just prior to the start of the latest World Cup Qualifying tournament in October 2016.
Three minutes into the first half Linfield’s Jamie Mulgrew shot well from just outside the box but it was straight at Jason Mooney. Sadly this wasn’t to be a good omen for Mooney as the night was largely error strewn for the Cliftonville stopper as he fumbled on several occasions. Cliftonville had a chance of their own ten minutes later as youngster Levi Ives had a go from 20 yards but it sailed harmlessly wide.
The match kicked into action on 21 minutes when Linfield’s corner dropped in the error and was hit goalwards only to be blocked by the arm of Chris Ramsey, referee Andrew Davey had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Stephen Lowry stepped up and confidently placed the ball into the back of the net to give Linfield the lead.
6 minutes later Cliftonville had a penalty of their own. Linfield defender Mark Haughey took possession of the ball in his own box but a loose touch allowed the ball to run away from him. As Reds’ Aaron Haire nipped in to steal the ball Haughey clumsily brought him down. Jay Donnelly took responsibility for the spot kick but dragged his shot wide of Roy Carroll’s right hand post.
On 30 minutes Linfield came close to doubling their lead when Cliftonville’s Daniel Hughes tried to shield the ball out of play but Andy Waterworth stole it from him and drove toward the box. Waterworth cut it back to Cameron Stewart who could only guide the ball onto the post and out for a goal kick. Stewart came to Linfield as a central defender but had recently been converted to a striker role by manager David Healy.
5 minutes from the half Linfield would have their second goal. A high ball was hoisted into the Cliftonville box and ‘keeper Mooney appeared to drop it under the challenge of Waterworth. The ball fell straight to Lowry whose shot was well blocked by Mooney but landed in the path of Waterworth to slap the ball home into the empty net. The Reds might feel slightly aggrieved as there was a suggestion Waterworth fouled Mooney when the initial ball came in.
The second half was more of the same as Linfield had chances to improve their lead but unfortunately couldn’t capitalise. Mark Haughey failed to connect with the ball 2 yards from goal as it flashed across his path before Cliftonville’s Chris Ramsey headed the ball onto his own post.
Linfield thought they had a third on 69 minutes when Jason Mooney fumbled a freekick, the ball fell to Waterworth just wide of the post who squared it for Haughey to turn into the net. The goal was disallowed by the referee’s assistant as he adjudged the ball to have crossed the line for a goal kick – a decision which replays proved to be incorrect.
The last moment of real note came on 71 minutes when Linfield’s Paul Smyth went through one on one but ‘keeper Mooney this time held strong to deny him. The game fizzled out after this point as Cliftonville could only muster a few unthreatening long shots.
Much was expected of young Linfield winger Paul Smyth and he lived up to expectations as he caused all sort of problems for the opposition’s defence with his intelligent movement on and off the ball. He was quite rightly awarded the Man of the Match award by the commentators and it’ll be interesting to see if this performance has attracted any further attention from across the water.
Linfield were victorious as the match finished 2-0. Three points sees them pull Crusaders lead back to 7 points and keeps the dream of a first league title since 2012.
Cliftonville will be eager to see this minor slump arrested as they have now failed to win a league match since 28th January against Portadown. Things could get worse for Cliftonville as fourth and fifth placed Coleraine and Ballymena still have a game in hand over the North Belfast side.