Cliftonville target top spot as Linfield visit Solitude out to ‘bounce back’ from Irish Cup exit

Linfield boss David Healy. Pic by Pacemaker.
Linfield boss David Healy. Pic by Pacemaker.
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During one of the most competitive Irish League campaigns in recent memory, as three points split the leading five clubs, every margin can make a difference.

Cliftonville host defending Danske Bank Premiership champions Linfield tonight aiming to reclaim top spot around 48 hours after Glentoran moved into the lead.

Cliftonville boss Paddy McLaughlin. Pic by Pacemaker.

Cliftonville boss Paddy McLaughlin. Pic by Pacemaker.

Those two clubs at the head of the pack share the same points tally and goal difference, with Cliftonville having played one game fewer before the Sky Sports television cameras come to Solitude.

The Blues return to league play following a shock Irish Cup exit at Queen’s that, according to an official Linfield website interview, left manager David Healy “embarrassed”.

Figures provided by statistician Marshall Gillespie confirm no side can boast a better win rate over the past 10 games than Cliftonville - with Linfield tackling the Belfast derby in front of an international audience having dropped points across the festive period to Crusaders, Glentoran and Coleraine.

“We need to bounce back and be better than what we have been of late,” said Healy online. “There’s no point me talking about me being a good manager and the rest of the staff being great and players being great if that’s the type of performances and results we are going to churn out.

“We need to be better and we need to improve to go forward.

“Cliftonville will offer us a big game and it’s a big test.”

In the search for small margins to make the big difference, Cliftonville boss Paddy McLaughlin draws confidence from the internal drive for minutes outside of the external focus on Linfield’s search for form.

“Linfield are coming to Solitude trying to get a result no matter how the previous game went, so I don’t think I’ll read too much into how they did in the Irish Cup,” said McLaughlin following his side’s 6-0 defeat of Hanover in the Irish Cup. “It’s a top-of-the-table clash so one we will look forward to - going in all guns blazing with the boys in a good place at the minute in terms of confidence and form.

“It will always be a tough game against Linfield.

“With the Sky Sports TV cameras here it’s brilliant and, hopefully, we can get the result and showcase how hard we work.

“The mentality is still so strong.

“Given the demands of the fixture period this time of year we could have come into the Hanover tie fielding just a team full of young players.

“But that would have been disrespectful to the competition and our opponents.

“But instead now I’m almost falling out with the senior players not picked who were that keen to play for the jersey as often as they can.

“That’s a brilliant problem for me as a manager, it shows the mentality here of the players.

“We work our socks off every week in every game, and even in training - they push themselves to the limit as best they can every time.

“Sometimes injuries hurt more when losing games and the knocks don’t hurt as much when winning.

“You are living on your nerves waiting on fatigue kicking in given the past few weeks of fixtures.

“It’s testament to the boys that the only real injury we’ve picked up has been Chris Curran.

“You’ve got to make big sacrifices to be in or around the top of this game and those sacrifices by our boys over the festive period have been justified.

“They deserve all the praise they are getting at the minute but we know it can easily be wiped away if you ever become complacent.”

Healy told BBC Sport NI the need for Linfield to “move on” from the loss to Queen’s University.

“We need to put this behind us very quickly and the Cliftonville match gives us the opportunity of doing that,” said Healy on the website. “As disappointing as it is, going off a cup competition and the humiliation of losing the game, we need to move on.”

Linfield can draw confidence from a record of two wins from the three previous meetings between the clubs this season.