A seven-minute flurry of second-half action at Celtic Park on Tuesday night saw champions Linfield suck the gallant life out of Donegal Celtic.
Leading thanks to Philip Lowry’s goal which came after just two minutes, Linfield had struggled to deal with a host that dominated thereafter.
Lowry’s opener created the impression Pat McAllister’s men were about to face an onslaught from the champions but by the time the interval came, David Jeffrey was the more concerned of the respective managers.
Celtic seized upon a Linfield side missing the leadership of skipper Michael Gault, international goalkeeper Alan Blaney, ex-Donegal Celtic star Ryan Henderson, Johnny Black, Damien Curran and Nathan Hanley.
Celtic would have hoped for more in the second-half – but got nothing but a lesson on how to deal with a stubborn challenge.
Inside seven minutes, this tussle in bitter-cold conditions was set on fire by the Blues.
Two goals from Brian McCaul, one from the penalty spot, either side of a Matthew Tipton strike, saw Linfield moving to within 13 points of league leaders and new League Cup champions Cliftonville, and to within four points of second-placed Crusaders.
It all started in the 52nd minute when Celtic had a goal disallowed after defender Paul Bradley plodded the ball over the line in a crowded goalmouth – referee Arnold Hunter citing a foul on Linfield’s stand-in goalkeeper Ross Glendinning.
Linfield’s response was clinical. Seconds after Celtic goalkeeper John Connolly made a terrific save to deny Jamie Mulgrew.
But he was picking the ball out of his net from Brian McCaul’s penalty after substitute Pearse Devine upended Michael Carvill in the 55th minute.
Devine would later see red for a ludicrous foul on Linfield substitute Robert Garrett.
Celtic barely had time to deal with the shock of their disallowed goal and McCaul’s spot-kick when Tipton scored in the 57th minute to claim his eighth for the season.
Then, two minutes later, Celtic’s defence parted and Lowry’s pass found McCaul unmarked and presented with the simple task of steering the ball past the advanced Connolly.
In the 84th minute, former Linfield striker Mark Miskimmin grabbed a consolation for Pat McAllister’s tattered and torn hoops.
Miskimmin nicked in behind the visiting defence to make the most of William Murphy’s poorly headed clearance and cleverly volley the ball into an empty net to get Celtic on the scoresheet.
Donegal C: Connolly, McShane, Bradley, C Burns, Keegan, McAreavey, McVeigh, O’Neill, Downey (Devine 27), Cleary (Miskimmin, 58), Gargan (McAllister 64) Subs not used: M Burns, Deans
Linfield: Ross Glendinning, Armstrong, Murphy, Carvill, Burns, Tipton, Mulgrew (Glendinning 82), McCaul (Garrett 69), McAllister (Thompson 72), Lowry, Quinn Subs not used: Ervin, Clarke
Referee: Arnold Hunter