A Runar Hauge penalty and Dane Massey own goal saw Dundalk defeat ten-man Drogheda United and get their European charge back on track.
Dundalk put back-to-back defeats behind them and kept their unbeaten home run intact in a dominant display in the 171st Louth derby.
The win sees Stephen O’Donnell’s side remain in third place with five games remaining, as they went five points clear of fourth-placed St Patrick’s Athletic, who have played one game fewer.
Drogheda returned to action for the first time in three weeks having defeated Dundalk twice earlier this season. But the visitors struggled with the hosts’ intense high press for large spells, with individual mistakes also proving costly as they remain winless in five.
Stephen O’Donnell opted for five changes from Dundalk’s FAI Cup quarter-final defeat to Waterford as Hauge, Sam Bone, Darragh Leahy, Joe Adams and Ryan O’Kane replaced Brian Gartland, Lewis Macari, Robbie Benson, Steven Bradley and David McMillan.
Kevin Doherty made four changes from Drogheda’s 2-0 league defeat to St Patrick’s Athletic, with Keith Cowan, Adam Foley, Dane Massey and Darragh Noone coming in for Dylan Grimes, Dayle Rooney, Luke Heeney and Georgie Poynton.
The hosts almost gifted Drogheda an early lead when a mix-up between Nathan Shepperd and Leahy almost saw the defender net an own goal, before the ball was cleared in the nick of time.
John Mountney sent a threatening cross towards the six-yard box minutes later but no Lilywhite head could meet it. Man of the Match O’Kane produced a magical spin to beat his man afterwards, drawing gasps from the packed crowd at Casey’s Field.
Leahy had the ball in the back of the net on 20 minutes, but the referee found Sam Bone to have fouled Keith Cowan inside the area. The derby was brought to halt midway through the first half as Evan Weir suffered a leg injury after a challenge from Greg Sloggett. The left-back was stretchered off as Dayle Rooney replaced him.
The breakthrough came five minutes before the break. Substitute Rooney bundled Hauge down inside the box and the referee pointed to the spot. The Norwegian stepped up and coolly slotted past Colin McCabe to net his first goal for the club. It was no more than the Lilywhites deserved following a strong first half display.
Drogheda struggled to play out in front of Dundalk’s high press, while their attack suffered from the hosts’ high line, straying offside several times.
A poor end to Drogheda’s half turned into a dismal one moments later. Massey attempted to chest Sloggett’s cross back to McCabe, but ended up turning it into his own net, as Dundalk entered the break 2-0 ahead.
After the restart, Dundalk picked up where they left off and threatened on both flanks through Hauge and the thrilling O’Kane, who saw his curling effort well blocked on the hour mark.
A triple change by the visitors failed to make much of an impact in the derby, as Drogheda struggled to get in behind Dundalk’s back four. Adams slotted in O’Kane with 15 minutes remaining, but McCabe was quick off his line to clear the danger.
The derby was stopped for several minutes in the closing stages as a member of the crowd required medical attention, before being taken to hospital.
Substitute Ryan Brennan received a straight red late on for an off the ball incident and Dundalk comfortably saw out a crucial three points to keep their European quest on course.
Dundalk: Shepperd; Mountney, Bone, Boyle, Leahy; Sloggett (Benson 63), Lewis, Adams (Ward 93), O’Kane; Hauge (Bradley 58), Martin (McMillan 93).
Drogheda United: McCabe; Massey, Cowan, Quinn; Weir (Rooney 25) Noone (Heeney 63), Deegan, Nugent; Foley (Brennan 63), Williams (Lyons 66), Markey (Grimes 63).
Referee: J McLoughlin.