For the second time this season, Cliftonville fell to a 2-0 defeat to Linfield courtesy of two second-half goals at Windsor Park.
After opening the scoring with a close-range header in the 73rd minute, Shayne Lavery sealed the points deep inro injury-time with virtually the last kick of the game.
In between times, however, the Reds spurned two glorious chances to level, with Ryan Curran seeing an attempt charged down before an excellent last-ditch challenge by Mark Stafford denied Barry Coffey.
After goalkeeper Aaron McCarey had dealt with a couple of high balls into the box in the opening minutes, it was Cliftonville who fashioned the first real opening when Paul O’Neill drove into the area and fed Ryan Curran, who was quickly crowded out before O’Neill’s snapshot was blocked by Jimmy Callacher.
Good work from O’Neill saw Stafford dispossessed in his own half but Rory Hale’s attempt to play his team-mate through on goal was scuppered by Linfield keeper Chris Johns ahead of O’Neill sending a strike off target from outside the box.
At the other end, McCarey stood up well to deal with a Lavery blast before making a superb reaction stop to turn Stafford’s header behind.
Jamie Mulgrew then went close with an audacious outside-of-the-boot effort while, early in the second-half, Garry Breen was well positioned to snuff out the danger from a Joel Cooper cross.
Hale failed to make a full connection with a shot that was comfortably fielded by Johns ahead of opposite number McCarey doing well to firstly turn a Cooper attempt over the top and then react to a deflected Cooper shot in time to save with his feet.
McCarey then kept out efforts from Lavery and Callacher as Linfield assumed greater control of proceedings and they got their breakthrough goal 17 minutes from time when Cooper’s delivery found Lavery and the middle and he simply couldn’t miss.
The Reds’ first bid for an equaliser saw the ball fall favourably to substitute Daire O’Connor outside the box but he was unable to keep his attempt on target before some excellent build-up play from Ryan O’Reilly saw him slip Ryan Curran into a shooting position, but he took a split-second too long and his strike was charged down.
An even better opportunity would come the visitors’ way with three minutes remaining. O’Neill’s perseverance saw him get in behind the Blues’ defence and, when he squared the ball for Coffey, the leveller seemed inevitable until Stafford intervened with a wonderful tackle.
In injury-time, O’Connor saw another shot blocked and Ryan Curran was wildly off target before Linfield settled the issue when Kirk Millar cut the ball back for Lavery to finish things off.
Cliftonville: McCarey, Breen (Harney, 76 mins), O’Reilly, C Curran, R Curran, Donnelly, Bagnall, Doherty (O’Connor, 60 mins), Hale (Coffey, 72 mins), Lowe, O’Neill. Unused subs: Dunne, McCrudden, Casey, Kearns.