Linfield emphatically bounced back from their run of three League matches without victory with a well-deserved victory over Cliftonville at Solitude, and in doing so reclaimed second place whilst ending the Reds’ 14-match unbeaten League run.

David Healy made five changes from the team that lost to Coleraine last Friday, with Chris Johns back available and in for David Walsh, Ben Hall back from a groin injury in place of Daniel Finlayson, Josh Archer in for Darragh McBrien, Rhys Annett in for Chris McKee, and Matthew Fitzpatrick in for Kirk Millar. Matthew Clarke was wearing the armband to make the occasion of his 400th Linfield appearance.

The Blues dominated from the off, although they never turned their superiority into goals. David Healy’s men had a big opportunity just seven minutes in as Cliftonville ‘keeper David Odumosu slipped and was dispossessed by Rhys Annett, but he had to hit his close range shot on the turn, but his effort hit the side netting.

Matthew Fitzpatrick also missed a glorious first half opportunity when Ethan McGee squared it to the striker after being slipped in inside the box by Kyle McClean, however Fitzpatrick scuffed his shot at close range and he’ll be disappointed not to have scored.

Matthew Clarke almost found the net on his landmark occasion after being teed up by Rhys Annett, but his goalbound shot was blocked by Odhran Casey who put his head on the line, and a short time later the Blues threatened again as Jamie Mulgrew’s cross from the left was agonisingly just beyond the reach of both Rhys Annett and Ethan McGee who went in to try and get their heads on the end of it after Cliftonville defender Paddy Burns was caught underneath it.

The returning Chris Johns was untested in goal for Linfield in the first half, with Cliftonville’s only meaningful attempt a 20-yard effort from midfielder Rory Hale on his weaker left foot, though his low shot flashed just wide of the far post.

HT: Cliftonville 0-0 Linfield

David Healy will have asked his team for more of the same in the second half, but with a bit more ruthlessness in the final third, and that final piece of the jigsaw was forthcoming.

The Blues got their deserved breakthrough goal nine minutes after the break. It was a goal built on sheer determination as Rhys Annett chased what looked a lost cause as Cliftonville defender Odhran Casey attempted to shepherd the ball out for a goalkick, only for the teenage forward to nip in and poke the ball into the path of Kyle McClean who capped a superb performance with his eighth goal of the season, hammering the ball in from close range.

David Healy was then forced into a substitution on 62 minutes as Chris Shields – who had an excellent match in the back three – hobbled off injured and was replaced by Daniel Finlayson. The extent of the injury is unknown at this stage, however a negative became something of a positive as substitute Finlayson scored just two minutes after coming on. Matthew Clarke delivered a great corner delivery to the back post area where Finlayson rose highest to nod in his four goal of the season, putting the Blues two-nil ahead.

Things got even better for Linfield as they extended their lead to three in the 76 minute when Kyle McClean’s corner was headed down by Daniel Finlayson at the back post, putting the ball into the path of Chris McKee who dispatched the ball into the net from close range for his 14th goal of the season.

Whilst 3-0 is an emphatic scoreline at Solitude – a venue only Linfield have won at in the League this season, and have now done so twice – it wouldn’t have flatted the Blues if they had won by a couple more. Matthew Clarke was unlucky on a couple of occasions not to add a fourth goal, whilst Kyle McClean dragged a shot wide from a good position on the edge of the box. At the other end, Chris Johns hardly had a shot to save.

David Healy’s five changes worked a treat, and his substitution choices proved to be inspired, in their best performance of 2024 to date. You could go through them all, but every Linfield player played very well tonight and subsequently it was an excellent collective performance.

This victory, and the manner of it, should lift everybody around Windsor Park as the Blues look to finish the season strongly. The Blues are back to within a point of leaders Larne, though the Inver men have a game in hand. Cliftonville are back to two points behind Linfield in third now as the title race heats up.

Next up is a home League match against Ballymena United at Windsor Park this Saturday as the Blues look to try and string a positive run of form together.

FT: Cliftonville 0-3 Linfield

Written by Jamie Megarry