Portadown’s title ambitions were left floundering in the wind at Windsor Park on Saturday.
A 3-2 defeat to Linfield has left the Ports labouring in fourth spot in the Danske Bank Premiership.
More alarmingly for Ronnie McFall’s side is the 10-point gap between themselves and the Blues.
It is a mounting gulf in points – even at this early juncture of the season – that the Shamrock Park side can ill-afford to see lengthen over the Christmas period.
There may have only been one goal in it at Windsor on Saturday, but on the evidence of the 90 minutes there much more between the sides.
Despite going ahead with Chris Casement’s second-minute free-kick, the Ports were pegged back by soft goals from Andy Waterworth and Jamie Mulgrew.
Mark McAllister coolly lobbed a third for the Blues before Darren Murray grabbed an injury time consolation.
Ports assistant manager Kieran Harding admitted his side were out-fought and outclassed at the international stadium.
And he believes his players need to improve if they are to reel in the leaders.
“We had a super start with the Casement goal, but we didn’t hold onto the lead long enough,” he said.
“Two set plays cost us in the first half, and it was poor defending.
“We never got to grips with things after that, even though we had a couple of chances.
“We never got started the second half, and Linfield bossed things and got another soft goal.
“They dominated midfield and we didn’t get to grips with them.
“Overall, it was a very disappointing day – we make no bones about that.
“We were poor in midfield, and we didn’t have that spark and creativity.”
Jonny Tuffey was at fault for Casement’s early opener, the Blues keeper offering up little resistance to the defender’s long-range free-kick.
It was all square 12 minutes later when David Miskelly failed to deal with Matthew Clarke’s corner, the Ports keeper punching the ball into the onrushing Waterworth, with the ball rebounding into the net.
Tuffey made amends with a superb save from another Casement set-piece moments later, and the Blues surged ahead in the 19th minute.
Aaron Burns played a short corner to Mulgrew, and the midfielder delivered a low cross that somehow evaded everyone en route to the bottom corner.
McAllister made it 3-1 in the 52nd minute when he latched onto Mark Haughey’s long ball before lobbing Miskelly.
Ports striker Murray completed the scoring with a close-range finish in injury time.
“It was a tough game and we are delighted to get the three points,” Blues boss Jeffrey said.
“I am really pleased with the performance levels, and I thought we deserved it. We showed great character.”