Cliftonville .... (0)0 ....... Crusaders .... (1)2
Covid concerns ditched, Stephen Baxter’s Crusaders propelled themselves back into the race for European spots last night, defeating tepid Cliftonville and damaging the Reds’ title aspirations.
It was a first home defeat after ten straight Solitude league victories for Paddy MacLaughlin’s men, and frankly one they deserved.
A thin blanket of snow veiled the green baize setting a white, wintry scene as the battle for North Belfast supremacy commenced.
Despite starting the game the brighter, Cliftonville’s all too conservative approach rarely troubled a striker-less Crusaders side content to sit back, pouncing only rarely on the break.
A tame, inaccurate bar-clearing header from the normally dangerous Ryan Curran apart, Cliftonville could point only to Paul O’Neill’s failure to beat hesitating Johnny Tuffey when through, before the Crues struck on the stroke of half-time.
It was the visitors’ first meaningful attack and had much to do with Kennedy’s persistence and Caddell’s cuteness, setting up Paul Heatley to blast Crusaders in front from close-range.
The Hatchetmen never looked back from that point on. Playing higher up the pitch in the second-half they diluted any little momentum Cliftonville had generated throughout the first 45.
It was Ross Clarke who produced the spadework for Kennedy’s insurance goal just past the hour mark. Was it a cross or did he try to score? Not a conventional or good one if a cross was intended, but I think Clarke noticed McNicholas, not enjoying his best night, off his line and audaciously tried to squeeze the ball in at the near post.
Either way the ‘keeper made a hash of the situation leaving Kennedy with a simple header to extend Crusaders’ lead.
There could have been a third as a breakaway involving Heatley and Clarke again had the ball in McNicholas’ net, but Clarke applying the final touch had strayed offside.
Cliftonville, looking jaded and lack-lustre, only really came to as the last ten minutes approached. By then Joe Gormley had emerged from the bench, replacing Paul O’Neill to little effect, but Tuffey had to be sharp in dealing with efforts from Addis and Ronan Doherty in quick succession.
Another substitute, Adam Leckey, blocked a goal bound effort from Cliftonville’s Daniel Kearns and the afore-mentioned Addis saw a header bounce off the top of the cross-bar.
It was all too little, too late for the Reds, who never really looked like getting back into the game.
Paddy McLaughlin is likely to rest a few for the weekend’s cup tie against Islandmagee before facing two huge games in the space of five days the following week. No Saturday game, but first up is the visit of Glentoran to Solitude the following Monday, then a Friday night trip to Larne.
The January window could be a friend if they are to build successfully upon their solid half-season platform. A couple of fresh faces could yet work wonders for a Cliftonville side that’s lacked creativity in recent weeks.
Crusaders meanwhile are again in touching distance of a top four spot, the minimum objective to guarantee European football. They missed out this season, and two failures on the trot will tighten the budget.
Probably too far behind to have realistic title ambitions this season, they do have a great chance to kick-on now with three of their next four league outings coming against clubs from the bottom six.
It’s been a while since we saw the Baxter victory salute at the end of a significant win, but it was in evidence once again last night as the Shore Roaders celebrated at the Bowling Green End.
Perhaps his Crusaders mojo is returning...
CLIFTONVILLE: McNicholas, Ives, C Curran (Kearns, 58), Hale (McDermott, 23), R Curran, O’Neill (Gormley, 58), McDonagh, Lowe, Addis, Doherty, Turner
Unused subs: Dunne, G Breen, Donnelly, Coates.
CRUSADERS: Tuffey, Burns, Hegarty, Wilson, Weir, Lowry (Lecky. 90), Kennedy, Caddell, Heatley, Robinson, Clarke.
Unused subs: O’Neill, Frazer, Owens, Larmour, Patterson, Thompson.
Referee: Lee Tavinder