Cliftonville 0– 2 Linfield
GOALS either side of the break from Jimmy Callacher and Chris Shields ensured that Linfield secured the last vacant automatic European spot with a 2-0 victory over 10-man Cliftonville at Solitude on Saturday evening.
Callacher glanced in Kirk Millar’s corner in the early stages and the Blues secured the win from the spot as Chris Shields converted from 12 yards.
The result mattered little for the Reds in the grand scheme of things, as they couldn’t move above third place Glentoran but their evening ended on a sour note when Rory Hale was dismissed for a rash challenge on Kyle McClean late on, with the influential playmaker set to miss their vital end of season playoffs.
Interim boss Declan O’Hara admitted that he doesn’t accept losing lightly but insists they won’t dwell too much on the defeat ahead of the play-off semi-finals that are on the horizon.
“I don’t look losing football games; nobody looks losing football games no matter what,” O’Hara reflected.
“I said to the boys inside, now it is down to the playoffs. We’ve hopefully two games, the semi-final and hopefully the final and it’s down to us to get the boys lifted for it.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. Football is such a cruel game; we all know that. It’s important that our boys come into training next week with a smile on their faces again and get ready for the playoffs."
⚽ How it ended on the final day of the @DanskeBank_UK Premiership campaign as @OfficialBlues secured a European spot. #DanskeBankPrem pic.twitter.com/6a7i9HmBRl— NI Football League (@OfficialNIFL) April 29, 2023
O’Hara made three changes from the side that were pegged back late on in the North Belfast derby with Crusaders.
David Parkhouse, Jamie McDonagh and Ronan Doherty came into the starting eleven as Chris Curran dropped out with a knock and Ronan Hale and Kris Lowe weren’t risked – due to both players being on four yellow cards and at risk of missing the semi-finals of the play-offs.
Cliftonville threatened early on when Jamie McDonagh’s cross was met by the head of Joe Gormley and his goal-bound effort was deflected behind for a corner.
McDonagh took the resulting corner and found Colin Coates free inside the area, though his attempt whistled across the face of goal and was cleared.
Left-winger McDonagh then sent in a free kick that Chris Johns lost the flight of and Chris Shields was forced into a clearance ahead of Chris Gallagher.
Joel Cooper then cut inside on the right and found Stephen Fallon in the area and his shot was deflected behind off the back of Colin Coates.
The resulting corner from Millar was precise and Jimmy Callacher pounced to head home the opener and give Linfield a 1-0 lead.
Midway through the half, Eetu Vertainen cut into the area down the left-hand side and headed across the by-line- though Colin Coates stepped in at the expense of a corner, that would come to nothing.
Nathan Gartside was then called into action with a double save, first turning away a Joel Cooper effort before springing to turn away a follow-up from Kirk Millar.
On the half-hour mark a Chris Gallagher cross was glanced a few yards wide of the post by David Parkhouse.
Linfield almost doubled their lead before the break, Kirk Millar dropped in another threatening set-piece from the left and scorer of the opener Callacher glanced into the side netting as his goal proved the difference at the interval.
Cliftonville were almost back on terms within two minutes of the restart, but Luke Turner couldn’t keep his header down from a pinpoint Jamie McDonagh delivery.
On 56 minutes, Linfield were presented with the opportunity to double their lead when Turner brought down Eetu Vertainen and referee Jamie Robinson pointed to the spot.
Chris Shields took responsibility and despite Nathan Gartside guessing correctly, the midfielder tucked his shot into the bottom corner to make it 2-0.
Jamie McDonagh dragged an effort wide of goal with little under 20 minutes remaining, but it was Linfield who went closest to extending their lead when Matthew Clarke low drive from the edge of the box was turned behind by Gartside.
Cliftonville were reduced to 10 men on the stroke of full-time when Rory Hale lunged in and caught Kyle McClean and referee Robinson brandished the red card to the midfielder who will now miss the playoffs.
At the conclusion, Linfield ran out 2-0 winners and take the last vacant automatic European spot.
Cliftonville must wait until next the conclusion of next Sunday's Irish Cup final before the playoff picture will become clearer.
CLIFTONVILLE: Gartside, Moore, Casey (Addis 74’), Coates, Turner, McDonagh, Gallagher, Doherty (Rocks 62’), Rory Hale, Parkhouse (Ives 62’), Gormley.
LINFIELD: Johns, Roscoe-Byrne, Shields, Callacher, Millar (Haygarth 90+1’), Cooper, Clarke, Finlayson, Fallon (McClean 46’), Mulgrew (Quinn 81’), Vertainen (Devine 67’).
REFEREE: Jamie Robinson