Ballymena United conceded seven second half goals - six of them in an extraordinary 20 minutes spell - as they suffered a crushing beating at Solitude.
The Sky Blues had matched the champions for the first 50 minutes but the sending off of veteran defender Davy Munster early in the second half sent the visitors into a tailspin from which they never recovered, as the Reds plundered goals at will.
Among the recent spate of injuries, United manager Glenn Ferguson had the relative luxury of naming an unchanged starting line-up for the side who had defeated Ballinamallard last week.
That meant 15-year-old striker Matthew Shevlin once again started on the bench, where he was joined by winger Ally Teggart, fit again after an ankle ligament injury.
After Neal Gawley had warmed Conor Devin’s palms with a free kick, United went close on 12 minutes when Michael Ruddy’s shot was blocked by defender Tomas Cosgrove into the path of Matthew Tipton, whose low shot was brilliantly kept out by the outstretched foot of Devlin.
Cliftonville’s first chance came on 16 minutes when David McDaid sent strike partner Joe Gormley clear on goal but as the prolific frontman bore down on goal, Dwayne Nelson was off his line quickly to block the effort.
The United keeper was again involved a minute later when he pushed away Marty Donnelly’s free kick which had come through a ruck of players.
As the champions began to exert more pressure, Eamonn Seydak played in Stephen Garrett, whose low shot was turned around the near post by the busy Nelson.
When Gormley did manage to get past the United keeper, he cut the ball back across the face of goal but Ballymena were able to clear the danger.
Ballymena continued to pose a threat and Boyce set up Tipton but the striker took a heavy first touch and the subsequent clearance rebounded off the striker with the ball spinning inches wide of the far post.
As chances continued to come on a regular basis, Jude Winchester arrived to meet a Donnelly corner and volley just wide, while at the other end, Jenkins played in Ruddy, whose first time shot flashed wide of the post.
Ballymena could have gone in ahead at the interval as Neal Gawley’s ball saw Darren Boyce shrug off Jaimie McGovern but his fierce shot from a narrow angle cannoned off the chest of Devlin.
The second half started at the same break-neck pace of the first period, with David McDaid firing over from inside the six yard box after Nelson had parried Gormley’s effort.
Straight away at the other end, Allan Jenkins’ shot on the turn was met once again with the outstretched foot of Devlin.
But Ballymena’s stubborn resistance was eventually broken on 53 minutes as Jude Winchester’s diagonal ball found Marty Donnelly in on the wrong side of left-back Stephen McBride and the winger slotted past Nelson.
The game got away from Ballymena in two manic minutes around the hour mark.
Firstly, United had a goal ruled out after Mark Surgenor headed home from a Gawley corner and within 60 seconds at the other end, defender Munster was sent off for a second booking, a foul on Garrett.
And a minute later Cliftonville had doubled their advantage when Gormley latched on to another Winchester pass before rounding Nelson to score.
It got worse for Ballymena on 65 minutes as Johnny Taylor lost his footing, allowing David McDaid to race clear and fire a shot past the exposed Nelson.
It was 4-0 just two minutes later as full-back Eamonn Seydak burst down the left and his low cross was turned in at the back post by Gormley.
A fifth goal duly arrived on 69 minutes as McDaid dinked the ball over Nelson from close range.
And amazingly, Cliftonville hit a sixth goal inside a 20-minute spell on 73 minutes as Gormley completed his hat-trick, firing home the rebound via the inside of the post after Nelson had kept out his initial effort.
United’s misery was compounded on 83 minutes when substitute Jay Donnelly raced clear through another yawning gap in the Ballymena rearguard from a Winchester pass to beat Nelson.
Cliftonville: Devlin, Cosgrove (sub McMullan 70), McGovern, Flynn, Seydak, Garrett (sub J Donnelly 70), Catney (sub Johnston 70), Winchester, M Donnelly, McDaid, Gormley. Subs (not used): Scannell, Mulvenna.
Ballymena United: Nelson, T Kane, Munster, Taylor, McBride, Gawley (sub Thompson 65), Surgenor, Jenkins (sub Teggart 77), Ruddy, Boyce (sub McCullagh 77), Tipton. Subs (not used): Shevlin, E Kane.
Referee: Tim Marshall (Irvinestown).