A lot was made of the game between Cliftonville and Linfield. Not just the fact that it was on Sky Sports live on Monday evening, but also because if the Reds won, or got a draw, they would go back to the top of the table. If the Blues won, they would be top of the table only on goal difference over their biggest rivals Glentoran.

The Reds and the Blues are two of the best teams in the league with the ball on the ground – really comfortable playing the simple game of football. But with storm Brendan crashing through the island, this was surely going to play a part in the game. And to a degree it did, but it was also the standard of the pitch at Solitude not being up to the standard to hold any game-causing problems. It looked as though there had been a drag race on it the night before: big, long tire-like marks right across it… well, that’s what they looked like. The players appeared to find it hard to control the ball on the pitch.

Head to head

Before this game, the teams had met twice this season with the Blues running out winners of both games by a single goal. Back in September, the Blues ran out 1-0 winners at Solitude and at the start of December the Blues ran out 1-0 winners again, this time at the National stadium. So all the signs were edging towards another win for the Blues. But the Reds had been in good form going into this, with their four-game winning streak.

Team Selections

 

Cliftonville set themselves up a 4-4-1-1, and when on the attack they changed to a 4-2-3-1. Right-back Conor McDermott moved into centre-back alongside Gary Breen, due to the injury to Jamie Harney. Young Seanan Foster got the nod at right-back. Joe Gormley led the line for the Reds with Rory Donnelly playing just behind him.

 

 

 

Linfield set up as a 4-1-2-2, this also changing to a 4-2-3-1 on the attack. Mark Haughey continued his return from injury at centre-back. Andrew Mitchell was deployed as the holding midfielder with Jamie Mulgrew just in front of him. Stephen Fallon was allowed the freedom to get up and support striker Shayne Lavery.

 

 

First half

We kicked off and the wonderful viewers that took the game in on Sky Sports once again had the pundit of all pundits on the mic – Stephen Lomas. To say that Lomas is a little forgetful of who is actually playing on the pitch is a little bit of an understatement. You would think with only five live Irish League games shown on Sky, he would have more time to sit down and do a little research.

The Reds started strongly in the game and got the first effort away. McMenamin’s long-range effort went straight down the jaws of the Blues’ on-loan keeper from Motherwell Rohan Ferguson. Rory Donnelly then went even closer on the next attempt, this time taking the paintwork off the Blues’ crossbar. The Blues were weathering the Reds’ storm and then managed to turn the tables and get themselves in front. Andrew Mitchell converted a penalty after a handball inside the Reds’ box.

Ryan Curran then had a wonderful chance to equalise for the Reds after some great work from Gormley chasing after the ball and delivering a cross to the back post. Unfortunately, Curran just could not get the touch on the ball to finish.

The Reds got the equaliser before halftime. The Blues right-back Boyle made a hash of a pass from keeper Ferguson as he allowed McMenamin to make a challenge that saw the ball fall into the feet of Gormley, who coolly lifted it over Ferguson into the Blues net. A lot of questions were raised about who hit the ball first and was Gormley off-side, but the end state it was a goal, and who needs VAR?

Second half

Into the second half and the Blues started it without Haughey. The big defender, only just getting back from injury, needed to be replaced due to another injury. Someone forgot to tell Lomas that the big man never came back out for the second half. Got to love ‘Lomas behind the mic’.

The Blues were pushing for a second goal and it duly came. Boyle, who had his part to play in the mix up for the Reds goal, got a flick-on from a corner. Substitute Mark Stafford was lurking at the back post to nudge the ball home to the delight of the visiting supporters behind the goal.

It was then the turn of the Blues striker Lavery, who in all fairness has been going through a barren patch and could do with a goal. He went through one-on-one with Brush in the Reds goal only to see his shot saved. Again we had Lomas telling us how the Reds were missing Jamie Heny, or is it really Jamie Harney? What would I know? I don’t get paid to deliver- he does!

The Reds introduced new signing Michael McCrudden in the second half, but that was not enough to stop the Blues running out the winners in this one and claiming the top spot.

Hats off to both sets of players in this one. With both the weather and the pitch against them, they put on a hard showing for the league and tried to do all they could to win the game. David Healy really needed his players to step up after the horrible result in the Irish Cup against Queens University.

Man of the match

I will probably get a few looks of disbelief for this. But for me, it has to be the Blues’ Andrew Mitchell. The Blues for the whole game were a threat on corners and set plays. Mitchell’s delivery was just something else considering the conditions the teams were playing in, the Reds just didn’t know how to deal with it. He was also disciplined sitting in front of the back four and giving them the cover they needed to stop a very potent Reds offence.