Crusaders face Coleraine in Danske Bank Premiership clash
Danske Bank Premiership: Crusaders v Coleraine (Friday, 7.45pm, Seaview)
BACK in August, there wouldn’t have been many that foresaw Coleraine even being on the fringes of the title race heading into Christmas.
The Bannsiders found themselves right in the thick of it until three weeks ago. Their youthful side found a real early solidity as they lost just twice in their opening 17 games. But successive defeats to Ballinamallard, Linfield and Glenavon have left them in third place, nine adrift of leaders Crusaders and four behind Cliftonville, having played a game more than both.
The league leaders host Oran Kearney’s side at Seaview on Friday night, but Crues’ boss Stephen Baxter doesn’t believe the game is quite win-or-bust for Coleraine.
“They’ve fallen back nine points behind and it’s getting to that stage of the season where you don’t want to be losing much further ground," Baxter said.
“Ultimately, they will come determined to take something from the game, but make no mistake, we’ll be very determined to take something from the game at our end. You can never say that [Coleraine would be out of the running if they don’t win] because it’s only four games.
“They went on a two or three-week losing streak and, all of a sudden, you fall nine behind. But if we lose three on the bounce or Cliftonville lose three on the bounce, everybody’s back in it. I would never write anybody off, unless they were 15 or 16 points behind.”
Given they were coming off the back of a third consecutive season having finished outside the top half, you would be forgiven for not having foreseen Coleraine’s form prior to the last three weeks. But Baxter insists - on the basis of Coleraine having gotten some key players playing regularly - he is not at all surprised.
“It probably doesn’t surprise me because I saw the makings of their team at the tail end of last season," he added.
“I saw the emergence of [Brad] Lyons and [Ian] Parkhill. [James] McLaughlin has been the find of the season for them, he’s a real accomplished player and a nice finisher.
“One of the big things for them is that they’ve got their two central midfield players playing. [Ruairi] Harkin is a wonderful footballer, but he’s been a bit injury prone the last season or two, so we hadn’t seen the best of him. He’s a real good footballer. Though four or five of their good young players have surprised me how well they’ve done this season.”
As good as Coleraine had been from early season until mid-November, they had still played second fiddle to a Crusaders team that hasn’t lost since falling to Portadown on the opening day of the season.
“It’s very important that we try to keep that momentum,” said Baxter.
“We’ve only lost one game from the start of the season. But I just get the feeling that the second half of the season will be much tougher than the first half. It gets very competitive now.
“We have to make sure we keep doing the right things and playing the right way to try and secure as many points as we possibly can in the next six weeks.”