It is a busy footballing week in Ireland as the League of Ireland (LOI) resumes this weekend with full rounds of fixtures in both the Premier and First Divisions down south over the upcoming weekend, and Keith will be back tomorrow to take a look at those fixtures as well as some of the transfer news in the LOI.
Before then though, we have a big week in Northern Ireland starting tonight when we have a doubleheader of games as the semi-finals of the Sadler’s Peaky Blinders Irish Cup take place at Windsor Park. Both of today’s games promise to be cracking affairs as they come in the shape of two derby games, firstly Ballymena take on arch-rivals Coleraine and then Belfast sides Cliftonville and Glentoran go head to head for a place in Friday’s showpiece final.
Both games are being shown live on BBCNI, as is Friday’s final which, at the time of writing, is of the hope that a small number of spectators could be able to attend.
I will be looking back at how each team’s league campaigns went, previous meetings between the sides this season, and giving a prediction for both of today’s semi-finals.
Ballymena United v Coleraine (Monday 27th July at 16:00)
Coleraine are back in competitive action tonight for the first time since they controversially lost out on the league title on a points-per-game (PPG) basis. At the time the Danske Bank Premiership was suspended in March, Oran Kearney’s side trailed eventual champions Linfield by four points, but the two sides were still due to face each other in the post-split fixtures.
The decision to end the season in this manner denied the Bannsiders a chance at a possible treble, having already won the League Cup in February, so this will no doubt give the north-coast side an extra incentive in tonight’s game.
If Kearney’s side are to win tonight, they will have to do so without the services of striker Curtis Allen. Allen returned to Coleraine in January on loan from fellow semi-finalists Glentoran and while he would have been eligible to play in tonight’s game originally, his contract with the Glens expired at the end of last month when his parent club opted not to extend his contract on a short-term basis, meaning his loan to Coleraine effectively ended. While this is no doubt a blow to Kearney and his side, they will still fancy their chances in tonight’s game with the other attacking options they have.
Ballymena go into the semi-final on the back of a disappointing campaign which saw them finish in 10th place based on PPG, a far cry from the previous campaigns 2nd placed finish. David Jeffrey’s side managed just seven league wins out of the 31 games that were played, losing 18, and a lack of goals seemed to be an issue as they managed just 34 with only the bottom two scoring less.
United have been handed a boost with the news that defender Steven McCullough will be available for selection. McCullough was due to be suspended but Ballymena were able to appeal on the basis that the game(s) in which he could have served his suspension were cancelled through no fault of the club and while the initial appeal was rejected, the issue was taken to arbitration with the club finding out just yesterday McCullough would be available for selection. Manager David Jeffrey will also be on the touchline having had his touchline suspension rescinded on the same grounds.
In terms of recent fixtures between the sides, Coleraine currently hold the upper hand between the sides having won two of the last three derby fixtures and drawing the other one, the last of those having taken place the week before the suspension of football with Kearney’s side running out 2-0 winners.
In terms of both teams’ cup campaigns, it could be said that this will be United’s biggest test having overcome a Championship and Amateur League side to reach this stage of the competition and Coleraine have had to face tough fixtures against Premiership sides Glenavon and Larne, but both teams are here on merit and Jeffrey’s side will undoubtedly rise to the occasion.
Onto my prediction for the first semi-final, Ballymena have proven themselves as a formidable cup team in recent seasons and will be hoping to salvage something from what was an underwhelming season for the Sky Blues, but personally I think Coleraine are simply the better side at present and would fancy them to win this one possibly even by a couple of goals. I will say the final score will be 2-0 to Coleraine.
Cliftonville v Glentoran (Monday 27th July at 20:00)
If the first semi-final was a mouth-watering fixture due to the rivalry between the two sides the second one is just as intriguing simply due to how competitive and tight a clash it is likely to be.
At the time of the football suspension, both Cliftonville and Glentoran had almost identical records with the Reds edging out the Glens by a point in the table at that time and both teams having almost identical records.
There was even little to separate the sides in terms of goal difference in March with Mick McDermott’s Glentoran side having a better goals record while Cliftonville had a marginally better defensive record and Glentoran having a better goal difference by one goal.
In the end, Paddy McLaughlin’s side just edged out their East Belfast counterparts to finish in fourth place based on PPG.
Yesterday Cliftonville were handed a similar boost to Ballymena with the news that the originally suspended Jamie Harney and Gary Breen would in fact be available for selection, albeit McLaughlin has voiced his displeasure that the outcome did not arrive until the day before the match which did not help their pre-games preparations.
In his first full season in charge, McDermott has been able to restore some pride at the Oval with the side looking like possible title challengers at one point, they faded slightly in the second half of the season though and no doubt injury to star player Hrvoje Plum played a part in this. Nevertheless, they still managed to secure their first top-six finish in three seasons and an Irish Cup win would cap a huge improvement for the club.
The North and East Belfast sides have faced each other three times this season in the Danske Bank Premiership with the Reds winning the first and last meetings 1-0 and 2-0 respectively and a 2-0 win for the Glens sandwiched in between. I could see tonight’s game going all the way to penalties though, and certainly cannot see either team winning by more than a goal or two.
Neither side has had an easy run in the cup, though in the fifth round Cliftonville easily beat Mid-Ulster side Hanover with a six-goal winning margin, while the Glens needed penalties to see off eventual Championship winners Portadown. From there McDermott’s side took on Queens University who had beaten Linfield in the previous round and managed to squeeze through by a narrow 3-2 scoreline while McLaughlin’s men came out on top 3-1 against Rathfriland. In the quarter-finals, both sides saw off Premiership opposition with Glentoran beating Crusaders and Dungannon.
As I said earlier, I could easily see this game going all the way to penalties but if I was pushed to pick a winner, I would maybe lean towards a Cliftonville win, perhaps with a 2-1 scoreline.
I will be back on Friday to preview the final so in the meantime, all that remains to be said is enjoy both of tonight’s games wherever you may be watching from, hopefully they are as entertaining as they promise to be.