The Danske Bank Premiership is back for another weekend of action and there is a full line-up of fixtures this Saturday. All games are scheduled for a 3:00 pm kick-off. There are some big matches that will help shape the remainder of the season, and if the season so far is anything to go by, we should be in for some great action this weekend. Any of the top five sides can be at the top of the table by the time the final whistle blows just before 5 pm on Saturday.
Ballymena United vs Glenavon
With the top five running away at the top of the table, the vital sixth place spot is what these sides are battling for this season. Larne may have a 10-point lead, but three points for either side at the Ballymena Showgrounds is a huge step towards sixth place.
The last time these sides met was just before Christmas, and a 2-1 win for the Sky Blues was the result at the Showgrounds. Since then, both sides have struggled in the league. Ballymena have only won once, that was in the Irish Cup against Crumlin Star, while Glenavon recorded a 5-0 victory against Dungannon Swifts. The Sky Blues have lost all but the Irish Cup tie, while the Lurgan Blues drew with the two-league strugglers, Warrenpoint and Institute. Ballymena have the County Antrim Shield final on Tuesday night, so David Jeffery might be faced with a selection dilemma, risk it for sixth or get some silverware in the trophy cabinet.
Last time out for the Sky Blues was a 2-0 Irish Cup 5th Round win against Crumlin Star, with Carville and Friel firing Ballymena into the next round. This tie was played on the 4th January with their league match on the 18th January against Dungannon Swifts postponed due to a waterlogged pitch. Last time out for Glenavon was a home tie against Institute, ending in a 2-2 draw, with the Lurgan Blues coming back from 2-0 down, helped by goals from Daniel Purkis and Matthew Snoddy or a brace from Purkis, depending on which side of the debate you are on.
Defeat for either side will be a huge blow in the race for sixth. They will be relying on Larne to drop points along the way, and a flawless run of results between now and the split is most likely required for both these sides.
Carrick Rangers vs Cliftonville
Two teams that have surprised many this season with their performances face off at the Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena. Carrick sit in ninth place in the table, a comfortable 11 points from the relegation playoff zone, and 12 points from automatic relegation. Cliftonville have enjoyed much success so far this season, reaching the summit on a few occasions. They are currently third in the table on goal difference, tied on points with leader’s Linfield, who have a game in hand, and Glentoran.
The last time these two sides met was in August when a Chris Curran goal on the hour mark meant that The Red’s took all three points back to Solitude. Since that result, both sides have pulled out many impressive outings. Carrick have beaten Glenavon, Ballymena and Ards to reach the Irish Cup Sixth round in that time, while Cliftonville have recorded wins against Coleraine, Crusaders, and have reached the final of the County Antrim Shield, with Paddy McLaughlin having the same selection dilemma as David Jeffery and Ballymena on Tuesday night.
Last time out for Carrick was a disappointing 4-0 defeat in the derby against Larne. This game was played on a Friday night and with Cliftonville playing on a Monday night – this might be an advantage for Carrick. The cameras were at Solitude from Monday Night Football as Cliftonville took on Linfield. A Joe Gormley equaliser wasn’t enough as The Blues ran out 2-1 winners.
This game is more important for Cliftonville as it will give them a chance to stay level on points with the leaders, or even go top outright if other results go their way. Carrick are sitting comfortably in ninth place. Warrenpoint and Institute have their own battle going on at the bottom of the pile, with Dungannon Swifts looking like the only side capable of challenging them for ninth, but even they are seven points adrift. Carrick have an outside chance of reaching sixth place, but this is very unlikely sitting 13 points behind Larne. Seventh place is also very much achievable for the Amber Army, and three points here would be a huge step, especially with at least one of the teams in 7th and 8th dropping points as they face-off.
Crusaders vs Larne
Crusaders have found themselves in fourth place after 25 matches, one point behind the leading pack, playing one more game than second-place Glentoran and third place Cliftonville, and two more than top of the table Linfield. Larne currently occupie sixth place and have a 10-point advantage from their nearest challengers Glenavon, with Ballymena and Carrick not far behind.
Inver Park hosted the last match between these two sides in November, with it ending in a 0-0 draw. Since this fixture, Crusaders have gone on to reach the final of the League Cup, but their league form has been mixed beating Coleraine last time out, but only managing draws against their fellow title challengers, Linfield, Glentoran. They also have lost at home to Cliftonville. Larne have had a decent run of form since they last played Crusaders, with the draws against title challengers, Cliftonville and Coleraine, and wins against their sixth-place competitors Ballymena and Glenavon.
Last time out for Crusaders was a 1-0 win over Coleraine with the game being watched by the TV cameras. Jordan Owen’s gave the Crues the three points, keeping them right up at the top end of the table fighting for the title. The last match for Larne was the derby against Carrick, with The Reds beating the Amber Army 4-0. Goals from McMurray, Randall and a brace from McDaid meant that Larne remain comfortably in sixth place.
Neither side will want to see defeat at Seaview, but Crusaders have much more to lose. The Crues are one point behind the leading pack, and dropping points here is definitely not going to help them in the long run. They have an outside chance to go top and the way the league is currently, that is as likely to happen as it isn’t. Larne are comfortable in sixth place with a healthy advantage over the teams below them. Picking up points here might just be enough to fend off the competition and reach the top six group after the split at the first time of asking after their return to the top flight.
Institute vs Glentoran
Second from the top vs second from the bottom face off at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium. Institute currently sit in the relegation playoff spot, one point clear of Warrenpoint. Stute are also four points behind Dungannon, who also have two matches in hand over Stute. Glentoran go into the game in second place, level on points with leaders Linfield and third place Cliftonville.
Last time these sides met was in November where they played out a 1-1 draw at the Brandywell Stadium. Since this match, Institute have been on a fairly poor run of results, losing 10 matches in total. However, they have picked up some big results including a win at home to Coleraine and draws away to Ballymena and Glenavon. Glentoran have gone from strength to strength since the last matchup, picking up eight wins, two draws, with their only defeat coming in the County Antrim shield against Cliftonville.
Last time out for Institute was an improvement after exiting the Irish Cup thanks to a last-minute winner for Dungannon Swifts. They faced Glenavon and secured a 2-2 draw at Mourneview Park, however they did surrender a two-goal lead with their defence vulnerabilities being highlighted again. The Stute goals were scored by Joe McCready from the spot and Alex Pomeroy. For Glentoran, last time out they faced Warrenpoint, coming from a goal behind to win 2-1. Two goals inside three minutes from McDaid and Plum was enough to ensure that the Glens went top of the table for 24 hours or so at least.
A win here for either side is crucial. Institute really need to start picking up more points, their strong spell of picking them up against everyone they played has seen to be ended, despite the upturn in form last time out. Glentoran will not want to give up points here as they bid to lift the Gibson Cup for the first time since 2009.
Linfield vs Dungannon Swifts
The league leaders face off against the team in 10th place at Windsor Park. Linfield currently sit on top of the tree on 50 points level with Glentoran and Cliftonville, but crucially have a game in hand. Dungannon, on the other hand, sit in 10th. Their closest challengers are Institute, who have become the closest thing to rivals with the Swifts recently. Stute are only four points behind Swifts, but Dungannon have two games in hand.
It was October the last time these two sides met, with a convincing 4-1 win for Linfield away at Stangmore Park. Linfield have been a rollercoaster run of results recently, picking up a win against title challengers Cliftonville, but losing to Glentoran and dropping points to Coleraine and Crusaders. The most notable result for Linfield was the embarrassing defeat against Queens University in the Irish Cup.
Despite the defeat in the Irish Cup, Linfield managed to pick themselves up under the lights for Monday Night Football away to Cliftonville at Solitude, with a 2-1 victory thanks to goals from Andrew Mitchell from the spot and the winner from Mark Stafford. Dungannon’s last match against Ballymena was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch. Their last match that was played was the Irish Cup 5th Round fixture against Institute, in which a controversial last-minute winner knocked Stute out of the cup.
This game is one that could go either way. Linfield may be tired having to play again, especially when Dungannon had a break from football last weekend. Linfield need to win here in order to remain with the title-challenging group, Swifts, on the other hand, want to increase their lead over Institute to stay as many points away from the relegation zone as possible.
Warrenpoint vs Coleraine
Warrenpoint host Coleraine at Milltown with both teams wanting to get more points on the table. Warrenpoint currently sit in last place, but only one point behind Institute. Coleraine currently sit in fifth place on 47 points, only three behind the leading pack. However, the Bannsiders have played an extra game than the teams in second and third, while playing two more games than the leaders Linfield.
The last time these two sides met was in November when a 3-1 victory for Warrenpoint ended Oran Kearney’s unbeaten run. This game sparked life into the Warrenpoint side and the appointment of Barry Gray before the Coleraine thing helped improve things as well. Wins over Ballymena and Institute have seen The Point close the gap on Institute. Coleraine have picked up five wins since the defeat to Warrenpoint, as well as drawing to Linfield at home.
Last time out for Warrenpoint was a narrow 2-1 defeat to Glentoran in which they took the lead through Alan O’Sullivan, but a red card to keeper Mark Byrne on the 70th minute really changed things for The Point. However, the red card has now been rescinded and he is available for selection this weekend. Coleraine faced Crusaders under the cameras and lights at the Coleraine Showgrounds last time out, losing 1-0 to a Jordan Owen’s goal.
This game is crucial for both sides, with neither wanting to fall away from the challengers ahead of them. Warrenpoint have the opportunity to rise above Institute in the table, and they will want to do that. Coleraine have the chance to go top, it is unlikely but mathematically possible. They won’t want to fall away much more from the leading pack.