Holders Shamrock Rovers extended their lead at the top of the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division back to five points – with five games remaining – following an excellent 3-1 win over Sligo Rovers at The Showgrounds.
In what was a classy performance from the leaders, who needed to win in order to increase their advantage over second-placed Derry City, first-half goals from Daniel Cleary and Dylan Watts provided the foundation with Graham Burke adding the winners’ third goal in the second-half.
The home side, who remain sixth in the standings following this loss, grabbed what proved a consolation when centre-back Nando Pijnaker netted with 15 minutes of normal time left.
Sligo were last in action two weeks previously – an away loss to Derry – and they were looking for a win to reignite their faint hopes of finishing in the top-four. The hosts gave a fourth start of the season to veteran goalkeeper Richard Brush, a replacement for first-choice custodian Luke McNicholas, who picked up a season-ending ankle injury while on duty with the Republic of Ireland U-21 men’s squad.
The visitors’ first sight of goal was an off-target shot from Burke. Then Rory Gaffney threatened to open the scoring – after turning Shane Blaney – but the experienced Brush made a fine block to thwart Rovers’ target man.
The visitors' pressure was rewarded after 15 minutes. A clearance from a corner was picked up by Sean Kavanagh and his delicious delivery from the left was headed home by Cleary from inside the six-yard box.
Sligo responded with two decent shots from their 18-goal man Aidan Keena – in between these efforts from the Mullingar native was another chance for the impressive Gaffney, who went close to doubling the Hoops’ lead.
The champions continued to dominate and a sequence of neat passes ended with Burke curling a shot wide of the target.
A superb move saw them go 2-0 up in the 38th minute. Gaffney was involved in the build-up and then Jack Byrne’s sumptuous through ball found the run of Watts, who stroked a shot into the bottom corner.
On the stroke of half-time Sligo almost pulled a goal back but Max Mata’s close-range effort was blocked – with the home fans and players believing that there was a handball – following Frank Liivak’s cross.
Rovers controlled the second-half. Burke and Gaffney continued to impress and Lee Grace went close with an audacious overhead kick following a corner. A Burke effort from a tight angle came off the legs of Brush in the 57th minute.
There was a slight improvement from Sligo, who threatened with a shot from Paddy Kirk after Keena’s pass released the full-back.
It was Burke who wrapped up a confident display – he converted at the far post from Gaffney’s tempting cross after 70 minutes.
The hosts pulled a goal back in the 75th minute when Pijnaker got the final touch to a ball sent into the goalmouth from substitute Kailin Barlow’s free-kick.
Brush; Horgan, Blaney, Pijnaker, Kirk; Bolger (Morahan 63), McDonnell (Barlow 63), Cawley (Burton 46); Liivak (O’Sullivan 72); Keena, Mata (Fitzgerald 63)
Manus; Finn (Farrugia 84), Gannon (Hoare 74), Grace, Cleary, Kavanagh (Lyons 71); Watts, O’Neill; Byrne (Serdenyuk 84); Gaffney, Burke (Greene 71)