Historic Solitude takes centre-stage this evening, the latest instalment in this season’s compelling Irish League title-race.
Ireland’s oldest football stadium plays host to the north Belfast derby, postponed from last Monday after Crusaders were hit by Covid in the camp.
The Reds’ home form has been phenomenal - played 10, won 10, but no team enjoys poking the opposition eye as do the Crues, and with the added incentive of ending Cliftonville’s winning home run and de-railing the Solitude title-challenge, the Seaview men will be more than up for it tonight.
A typically feisty derby is in prospect.
The last five have ended all square and Cliftonville has won only 2 of the last 15, but go into this one slight favourites at 11/10. Should they win, they will return to pole position in the table.
For all their consistent success at home this season, Cliftonville has tended to squeeze rather than sail past visiting opposition. Seven of their victories have been by the single goal, only Carrick Rangers (9th), Portadown (10th) and Dungannon Swifts (11th) have left Solitude defeated by a greater margin.
Crusaders away form has been patchy. To be fair they’ve been hit more than most by Covid concerns but after three and a half scoreless road games in succession - they’ve not scored on the road since Declan Caddell registered before half-time at Dungannon at the end of November - they’ll feel due. Overdue in fact!
It’s a huge game for both clubs. Paddy McLaughlin’s impressive Cliftonville is still emphatically in the title race despite popular opinion casting doubt upon their credentials. You even wonder if Reds fans can really believe the season they’ve had so far. Jockeying for the title and preparing for a cup final, makes light of their part-time status amongst the other big-boys.
Crusaders may well have too much ground to recover to mount a serious title-challenge, but the riches of European qualification remain a priority, perhaps a necessity, to enable the healthy competitive challenge we’re used to seeing from the Shore Road men.
They’ll be better for their outing on New Year’s Day despite only drawing a blank against struggling Carrick Rangers, a game in which this season’s top performer Ben Kennedy returned.
Stephen Baxter and his men will be all too aware of the traditional goal threat from Joe ‘the goal’ Gormley, but perhaps the greater danger these days comes from strike partner Ryan Curran. Currently on 11, the former Derry City man is well-placed to surpass his previous-best league tally of 15 set last season.
All home tickets have been snapped up for this evening, making likely the prospect that Solitude’s biggest home attendance of the season so far (2,054 v Glentoran) will be surpassed.