Portadown a much sterner test now for their bogey team Cliftonville
Danske Bank Premiership: Portadown v Cliftonville (Shamrock Park, 7.45pm)
IF Cliftonville could hand-pick Premiership opponents then they might well have chosen Portadown. Up until the end of January, that is…
The Reds haven't lost once in their last 18 meetings with the Shamrock Park side, winning 15 of those matches. Indeed Portadown's last victory in this match-up came in January 2014 and Cliftonville haven't lost at tonight's venue for more than 11 years, since February 2011.
Yet the visitors know all too well that all unbeaten runs come to an end, getting a painful reminder of that truism as north Belfast rivals Crusaders crushed their Irish Cup dream at the semi-final stage on Friday night with a hard-fought 2-1 win at Windsor Park for the Seaview side.
An incorrect offside call stopped the Reds going back in front before half-time; instead an unfortunate own goal proved to be the winner, with Cliftonville then producing their most disappointing half of football for quite some time.
Paddy McLaughlin's men had gone, you guessed it, 13 games without losing since a 2-1 home defeat by Glentoran in mid-January, a run which included extra time success over Coleraine in the League Cup Final.
That streak has taken them into second spot, where they will remain whatever the outcome tonight, ahead of the final five post-split matches which will decide the destination of the Gibson Cup.
It's down to a three-horse race with champions Linfield currently four points clear of the Reds, who have this game in hand along with a five-point advantage over third-placed Glentoran.
The winners will reach the Champions League first qualifying round while the runners-up go into the Europa Conference League; the team in third faces a play-off to reach that third tier competition.
Portadown know that a win would lift them out of the relegation play-off place, currently trailing Carrick Rangers by only one point.
Reds boss McLaughlin has noted the Ports' improvement under Paul Doolin, who was appointed in late January. After taking just one point from his first four matches in charge, Doolin's men have collected 10 from their last four, including consecutive home wins over Coleraine, Ballymena, and Warrenpoint, all those wins without conceding. They also only lost 1-0 at Linfield.
"Portadown are fighting for their life, especially at home. Teams always back themselves to come out on top at home and you have to work hard to get anything away.
"It's been a brilliant turnaround since Paul Doolin has come in…he has great knowledge of the game and his work is having an impact almost immediately."
Portadown will feel they can end their jinx against the Reds tonight. They've scored in the last four meetings here, with two 1-1 draws and two 2-1 defeats.
McLaughlin knows his players have to pick themselves up from the disappointment of defeat to their nearest rivals but has no doubt about their desire to do so:
"Take away that Cup game and our league form has been brilliant. The hard work has been superb.
"The mentality of our boys this season has been brilliant, superb attitude and commitment. Outside our dressing room we weren't meant to be where we are, not meant to be in the title race or challenging for cups. It's important we don't change our mentality, keep doing what we've been doing…
"The fans have also been playing their part, there's a big collective effort from all at the club, and we'll go to the last kick of the ball in the last game of the season."