Thursday, February 07, 2008

David vs Goliath

Before Tuesday night's victory over the mighty Roesiders this observer was prepared to accept that Ciftonville's title challenge was exhausted. Despite the handsome grab of seven from the previous nine points available the Reds had forfeited an important advantage.

The elements had conspired to deny them the opportunity to retain top spot - a serious blow to any side facing the challenge of Linfield's bloated squad. Games in hand on muddy fields would serve only to further weaken heavy legs, with the added burden of Setanta Cup games at the top of the hill. Indeed, the decision to split the Setanta season was a boon to the neutral observer - or the Anyone But Linfield camp. With due deference to the champions and their supporters, a change of ribbons on the Gibson Cup would be invigorating for the Premier League.

So, 7 from 9, and every one of those scrambled - an indication perhaps of Cliftonville's relentless determination - or their limited squad. Their will always be hiccup or so on the long and winding route to a title victory. The so-called 'breaks' deemed by pickled observers to even themselves out appeared to be piling high in Cliftonville's favour - until that is, they found themselves second to the Blues' vastly superior goal difference last Friday night, without the comfort of a game in hand.

Suddenly DJ's men had the upper arm - their CIS Cup redemption a stark message to any David's contemplating a pop off Goliath - in spite of any errors the perennially Proud One may have made, he has been repaid for the stubborn streak that he has instilled in his players. They are possessed of that air of inevitability - there always looms a sense that they will come back from disadvantage to snatch a replay - which they will of course win - or a 3 point harvest, even on a poor judgement day.

There have ben a few of those this term - most especially so since the recent return of Conor Downey. Of late both Glenn Ferguson , less so Noel Bailie, have been reduced to the role of impact subs - one suspects that their wearied limbs are being preserved for sterner challeges which lie ahead. Peter Thompson's goal glut has coincided with Thomas Stewart's overdue elevation to the striking role he favours. There are unresolved issues in other areas.

The aforementioned Downey is central in every sense. Like an ovid salmon, he is drawn from his berth on the right-hand side into the centre circle. There he is greeted by the similar talents of Paul McAreavey and the unrivalled athleticism of Michael Gault. Meanwhile Damien Curran struggles manfully to keep left, pass right.

David Jeffrey's failure to resolve this mess may prove to be Eddie Patterson's trump card - the return of Vincent Sweeney a close second. Gault and one of Downey & McAreavey
must form the fulcrum of a 4-man midfield, the wide berths are DJ's issue. He could of course opt for 3 midfielders, with either of his gifted ball players in that place we have grown accustomed to calling the hole - the 3-man midfield is currently out of vogue.

What of Vincent Sweeney, the striker's protracted absence has seriously stunted Patterson's options. Even were he not to start, the big striker's assets provide an invaluable alternative in moments of pressing need. Yes, you can throw a hefty centre-half up front when things are desperate as the seconds drift into the night. Better though to have a hefty striker's instinct and aggression.

The challengers served serious notice of their refusal to acknowledge that the war is far from won, with an emphatic midweek trouncing of Limavady United. They remain toe-to-toe with Linfield but now enjoy the luxury of having played more games. Every advantage, no matter how minute, is crucial in such a tight contest. Bring it on!

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