Norway's FK Haugesund too strong for gutsy Cliftonville
UEFA Europa League First Qualifying Round first leg: Cliftonville 0 FK Haugesund 1
CLIFTONVILLE face a mountain to climb in next week's Europa League second leg clash in Norway after going down to a first-half strike from FK Haugesund's Christian Grindheim.
Warmly applauded off the field last night for their gallant efforts, there was an overwhelming sense that Cliftonville's European adventure would draw to a close in Norway next Thursday night.
Their full-time opponents were just too slick in the final analysis, even though they didn't add to their tally in a drab enough second half.
The visitors may have had bags of attacking quality but they only had one goal to show for their first half efforts.
In the 21st minute the Norwegians were denied by an outstanding piece of defending by Cliftonville new boy Conor McDermott.
Right winger Niklas Samuelsen, a classy homegrown U21 international, cut open the Reds defence and instead of electing to shoot he squared the ball to the more central Ibrahima Kone.
From seven yards out, it seemed impossible for the Mali U20 international to miss, but his casual side foot allowed McDermott to make a last-ditch save on the goal-line with the significant help of the upright.
Moments later, Kone took a mad lunge at Levi Ives which was so crude it merited two red cards, but in keeping with his erratic officiating on the night, referee Laurent Kopriwa of Luxembourg flashed a yellow instead.
But Kone's miss and dangerous challenge was enough for him to be substituted after 33 minutes.
Just before the big striker was withdrawn, however, Chris Curran should have opened the scoring but he made poor contact with McDermott's excellent cross.
Whenever the mood took them, FK Haugesund – who stuffed Coleraine 7-0 two seasons ago – played some lovely incisive football, and it paid dividends three minutes before the break.
A flowing move from left to right saw right back Mikkel Desler pick out captain Christian Grindheim who coolly slotted home, giving Richard Brush no chance.
FK Haugesund, who currently sit mid-table of Norway's top flight, were hungry for a second at the restart when midfield schemer Nikla Sandberg's curling free-kick was palmed away by Brush.
Paddy McLaughlin's men huffed and puffed in the second period but didn't really have any cutting edge to their play against a side that was a significant step up in class from last week's preliminary round opponents Barry Town.
The Reds faithful held out the hope that Chris Curran, who always looked dangerous, could magic something out of nothing.
But the club captain was withdrawn on 67 minutes to give Ryan Curran some competitive minutes.
Even though they struggled at times with the superior fitness of their opponents, new signing Ronan Doherty kept probing from midfield while Rory Donnelly almost bundled the ball home around the 70th minute mark.
But clear-cut chances were few and far between for both sides in a second half that lacked tempo.
Torbjorn Kallevag's wild tackle on McDermott prompted a red card in the 79th minute that raised the temperature in the closing stages.
Levi Ives saw his free-kick comfortably saved. Ryan Curran was close to connecting with a back post header and Doherty saw his stoppage-time header flash across Haugesund's left upright.
It felt like job done for the Norwegians at the end as the north Belfast men travel for the second leg next Thursday more in hope than expectation.
Cliftonville: R, Brush, C McDermott, L Ives, J Gorman (T Maguire 86), G Breen, L Bagnall, R Doherty, C McMenamin, C Curran (R Curran 67), R Donnelly, J Gormley Subs not used: D Dunne, J Harney, A Harkin, S Foster, R Wilson
FK Haugesund: H Sandvik, D Bergqvist, B Hansen, C Grindheim (KM Krygard 46), S Tronstad, N Sandberg, M Samuelsen (F Knudsen 82), T Kallevag, B Leite, M Desler, I Kone (K Velde 33) Subs not used: M Gostomski, , T Pedersen, IA Ikedi, E Ndayisenga
Referee: L Kopriwa (Lux)