Linfield may be set to exploit Cliftonville's defensive woes
Danske Bank Premiership: Cliftonville v Linfield (today, 3pm)
HEADING into the Christmas period, Cliftonville were in a title race; two games and 11 goals conceded later, the gap to league leaders Ballymena is now in double figures.
Lose at home to Linfield today and the Reds could find themselves in sixth place in the Danske Bank Premiership table, a full 14 points behind David Jeffrey’s pace setters.
Linfield, on the other hand, took advantage of Ballymena’s St Stephen’s Day slip-up against Coleraine in beating Glentoran 4-0 and cutting the gap between the Irish League’s first and second pair to just two points.
On December 15, Cliftonville had won three in-a-row in the league, scoring 12 goals in the process as they put Dungannon Swifts, Glenavon and Ards to the sword in quick succession. Heading into a Christmas campaign where they would play host to title rivals Crusaders and Linfield, confidence was high within Barry Gray’s camp.
Then came Institute and what was close to being a farce of a game at the Brandywell.
The Reds conceded six that afternoon and, although goalkeeper Brian ‘Bam’ Neeson was controversially given his marching orders, forcing defender Jamie Harney into nets, the visitors had already shipped three by that point in the game.
Cliftonville’s prolific strike-force did what they could to stop the rot in Derry, Rory Donnelly hitting a hat-trick on the day, although he also missed a penalty. It was Barry Gray himself who said after that game that “it’s pathetic” that Cliftonville should have to score four to even go close to winning a game.
In truth, though, the seeds of the Reds’ downfall were there before the Institute game.
Cliftonville haven’t kept a clean sheet in the league since early November and even their recent run of good form was marked by defensive lapses that put serious question marks against their ambitions to make a serious challenge at the top end of the table last until the spring time.
Following the St Stephen’s Day massacre at Solitude, those question marks have become ever more glaring.
While the returning Richard Brush was rushed back into goal for the festive fixture due to the suspension of ‘Bam’ Neeson, the malaise at the back goes much deeper than the availability of a goalkeeper - probably the most damning verdict was from Crues manager Stephen Baxter after the game when he claimed, “we scored five today, but it could have been 10”.
It’s not all doom and gloom at Solitude, though.
The Christmas Eve announcement of Joe Gormley’s decision to put pen to paper on a three-year contract extension demonstrates Cliftonville’s ability to keep their talent in the face of interest from other high profile clubs.
But Gormley’s show of loyalty also highlights the imbalance in the Reds’ squad between a blistering, talent-packed attack and a calamity-prone defence, an imbalance that, as recent results have indicated, may serve to prevent them from challenging for top honours come the business end of the season.
Linfield will be looking to make it two wins from two against fierce Belfast rivals this afternoon and, if the likes of Joel Cooper can turn on the style in the manner they did at Windsor Park on Wednesday, the Cliftonville defence may again be found wanting.