BETMCLEAN CUP FINAL TICKETS

Linfield moved eight points clear at the top of the Sports Direct Premiership tonight with a 1-0 win over second-place Cliftonville at Solitude, with Chris McKee coming off the bench to score a late winner for the Blues.

In a tight game played in windy conditions amidst ‘Storm Babet’ which had an impact on the match, it felt like a match that could be settled on a moment of magic or a mistake, and that proved the case as Linfield showed the ruthlessness that their teams are often renowned for, to take their chance with both hands when it came along.

Although the first half flowed with few stoppages, chances were few and far between. Linfield forward Matthew Fitzpatrick had the best of the lot and will be disappointed he didn’t put the Blues ahead when he diverted a free header wide of goal from ten yards from Kirk Millar’s excellent cross following a Linfield corner on the right.

The Reds were the better side in the opening fifteen minutes, getting into good areas and earning multiple corners, but they were unable to make it count. Their best chance of the first half fell for striker Ben Wilson who won the footrace onto Odhran Casey’s long ball over the top, and Chris Johns did well to rush out and tip the attempted lob wide of goal.

The Blues also had a scare when a heavy backpass caused Chris Johns trouble and he was dispossessed by Cliftonville striker Ben Wilson. The Blues’ ‘keeper did well not to give away a penalty when it would have been easy to throw himself at the feet of the attacker, however he forced him away from goal before Matthew Clarke made an important block.

Half Time: Cliftonville 0 – 0 Linfield

The Blues had to withstand a five-to-ten-minute spell of relentless Cliftonville early in the second half, with the Reds going close on a number of occasions. Firstly, a right wing cross from Shea Kearney found Joe Gormley who will have been disappointed to head over. Undoubtedly, he has the capabilities of burying such a chance.

Chris Johns was then forced into a good save at close range from Rory Hale’s effort when he was found free at the back post by Reece Jordan, and Jordan himself went close moments later when Linfield were caught out at a quick free-kick which was played to the wing-back inside the box; he got his effort past Johns, but the excellent Euan East was back to clear off the line.

Linfield ‘keeper Chris Johns then made an excellent save to again deny Rory Hale, this time it was a fierce 20-yard drive which Johns pushed over the crossbar despite the awkward movement behind it.

On 67 minutes The Reds missed another opportunity and it’s one they’ll look back on and regret, as in-form striker Ben Wilson struck the post after a neat Cliftonville breakaway down the left side.

The winning goal then arrived on 78 minutes when the instinctive Chris McKee anticipated an inaccurate header back from Cliftonville defender Luke Turner, who was troubled by a gust of wind, with substitute McKee latching onto the bouncing ball to coolly lob the onrushing goalkeeper with an excellent finish in front of the Linfield supporters in the away end, just seven minutes after coming onto the pitch.

There was almost a second goal in it for the Blues as Chris McKee got down the right and flashed a low cross right across the face of goal. Darragh McBrien was inches away from connecting with a backheel at close range which surely would have turned the ball in.

The Blues managed the game excellently to see out their lead comfortably enough and Manager, David Healy will be particularly pleased with his defenders with how they performed to keep a clean sheet away to a strong team in such windy conditions.

Full Time: Cliftonville 0 – 1 Linfield