Title race will boil down to a battle of nerve

Cliftonville earned a vital win over Linfield at the weekend
Cliftonville earned a vital win over Linfield at the weekend

What a difference a week makes.

Less than a fortnight ago Cliftonville appeared a team on the ropes.

A Premiership defeat to Portadown had their title defence verging on flat-lining.

Three days after that reverse at Solitude, the Reds were knocked out of the Irish Cup by Coleraine.

It was a painful blow for Tommy Breslin’s men, going down 4-3 against a Bannsiders side reduced to 10 men midway through the first half.

It was a double whammy for the North Belfast club, one that threatened to derail their season completely.

But in the face of adversity, Cliftonville have proved they are up for the fight.

With the weight of expectation perched on their shoulders, they have carried the burden with aplomb.

A penalty shootout victory over Crusaders saw them successfully defend their League Cup crown.

And seven days later they answered the critics once again with a spirited Premiership win over Linfield – one that saw them draw to within two points of the Blues at the top of the table.

The Reds can go top on Tuesday night if they can claim victory against Ballymena United in a rearranged league fixture.

It could prove another pivotal moment in this year’s rollercoaster title race.

And how many times have we said that this season?

We are now down to 11 games before the Gibson Cup will be handed out, and it remains anyone’s guess where the prestigious trophy will end up resting.

Cliftonville face a different challenge to the one that saw them crowned champions last season.

Last year they led from the front for most of the campaign. They played with a confidence and swagger that earned plenty of plaudits.

But this season is different.

The Reds are firmly wedged in a title battle that could go to the wire.

Linfield continue to lead the way, while Crusaders and Portadown still harbour hopes of turning the tables on their rivals.

It will all boil down to a battle of nerve.

And Cliftonville proved they can handle the heat with Saturday’s result.