Cliftonville and Linfield go head to head as Irish Premiership title race reaches its crescendo
What a difference a year makes.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic much of the 2020/21 Irish Premiership season was played behind closed doors or in front of reduced crowds. Only a couple of hundred fans were at Solitude to see Linfield lift the Gibson cup for a third year in a row.
Fast forward to this season, the crowds are back and with five games remaining in the league campaign, five points separate the top three teams in the table.
The Blues are again at the top with Cliftonville a point behind and Glentoran a further four points back.
It all sets up an incredible ending to what has been one of the most fascinating recent seasons in domestic football.
The post-split fixtures have added spice to the finale of the league campaign since its introduction in 2009.
It has led to the top six and bottom six facing each other, resulting in fewer ‘dead rubber’ matches at the tail end of the season.
This weekend the top two go head to head at a sold-out Solitude. The Reds haven’t got their hands on the Gibson Cup since they won back-to-back league titles under the late Tommy Breslin in 2014.
Much has been said and written about the Reds' title aspirations this season. They topped the table for a number of months earlier in the campaign but questions were asked as the North Belfast side aren’t a full-time outfit like Linfield and Glentoran.
Despite losing their Irish Cup semi-final last Friday, Paddy McLaughlin’s side bounced back with a 2-0 win over Portadown on Tuesday evening.
The Reds will fancy their chances in the title run-in; they’ve won their last eight league games and their star striker Joe Gormley has found a rich vein of form with 7 goals in his last 5 games.
At the start of the season many thought Linfield would go through a period of transition due to their move from part-time football to full-time.
David Healy had to deal with the loss of key players such as Mark Haughey, Andrew Waterworth and Shayne Lavery.
But Linfield have been there and done it before and this would arguably be David Healy’s greatest success if he got the Blues over the line.
They go into Saturday’s game in North Belfast with many fond memories at that ground in recent years, lifting the Gibson Cup at Solitude in 2017 and 2021.
Christy Manzinga has stepped up to fill the void left behind by Waterworth and Lavery, grabbing 17 goals so far this season.
Arguably the Blues signing of the season has been bringing in Chris Shields from Dundalk. He has made an impact in the heart of the midfield alongside skipper Jamie Mulgrew.
He may be new to the league but his experience of winning League of Ireland titles and playing in Europe will bring be crucial as the season reaches its crescendo.
The teams have gone head to head on three occasions in the league this season. Linfield picked up a 1-0 win at Windsor Park thanks to a Jordan Stewart header in November with the other two encounters ending in stalemates.
Glentoran sit five points behind Linfield and are far from out of the title race.
Mick McDermott has assembled a squad of strength and depth with the ability to beat anyone on their day.
Their most notable play is striker Jay Donnelly: the leagues leading scorer with 25 goals so far this season. You couldn’t say the Glens are overly reliant on him however, as Conor McMenamin has chipped in with 19 goals.
They face Crusaders at The Oval this Saturday knowing that they can close the gap on the top two before they take to the pitch at 17:30
There has undoubtedly been a feel-good factor around the East Belfast club this season as attendances and expectations have grown.
The Glens have picked up results against their title rivals already this season and remain in the mix to pick up the Gibson Cup for the first time since 2009.
It looks like the title race will go to the wire, and with growing attendances and a healthy product on the pitch, the Irish Premiership is in a good place.