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01 Jun 2021
© Stephen Hamilton/PressEye Cliftonville players celebrate their shoot-out victory
Cliftonville defeated Crusaders on penalties to reach the European play-off final after 120 minutes of a gripping encounter at Solitude failed to produce any goals.
Crusaders might well have seized the early advantage only to be denied by two goalline clearances inside the first ten minutes when Jamie Harney was on hand to clear a Jamie McGonigle effort before Chris Curran then threw his body in front of Paul Heatley's follow up.
Indeed, the Crues continued to look the more likely to find a way through when Billy Joe Burns sent the ball just a little too high from Heatley's corner while Ben Kennedy dragged a right-foot effort past the post.
Crusaders crafted yet another opening as the first half progressed with Kennedy cutting the ball back from the touchline for Heatley to attempt an overhead kick which flashed just narrowly wide of the target.
But the closest chance was yet to come in the scoreless opening 45 minutes when, not long before the break, Kennedy delivered the ball from the left for Jordan Forsythe to meet with a powerful header but he just couldn't keep the ball down.
As per the first half, the Crues got off to a bright start after the interval with Reds keeper Aaron McCarey forced into a smart stop to turn Daniel Larmour's header around the back post.
However, Cliftonville started to create more and came within a whisker of opening the scoring when Daire O'Connor saw a diving header knocked off the line by Jarlath O'Rourke.
O'Connor had another opportunity around ten minutes after that when he ran onto a Chris Curran defence splitting pass but his finish was disappointing allowed Jonny Tuffey to make a comfortable save.
Crusaders had a late chance to prevent the game drifting into extra-time but David Cushley's looping header from a Larmour cross could only drop onto the roof of the net.
Extra-time, whilst entertaining, failed to produce any goals although Joe Gormley did go close on occasion, particularly when he headed just wide from a Rory Hale cross at the back post.
And so onto penalties. Kicking the sequence off Hale, O'Connor, Ryan Curran and Paul O'Neill all found the net for Cliftonville with Kennedy, Cushley, O'Rourke and Larmour all responding for the Crues.
With the scores tied at four apiece Gormley stepped up to convert Cliftonville's fifth spot-kick meaning Michael Ruddy had to score to keep Crusaders in contention but, unfortunately for the 27-year-old, he sent his attempt onto the crossbar.
Cliftonville will now meet Larne in Saturday's decider at Inver Park, kick-off 5:30pm.
Cliftonville: McCarey, Ives, O'Reilly, Harney, C. Curran, O'Connor, McCrudden, Donnelly, Bagnall, Hale, Lowe subs Dunne, R. Curran, Foster, Doherty, Gormley, O'Neill, Coffey
Crusaders: Tuffey, B.J. Burns, Weir, Kennedy, McGonigle, Cushley, Forsythe, O'Rourke, Thompson, Heatley, Larmour subs Shields, Caddell, Ruddy, Brown, Logan, Holland, T. Burns