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Leaders Crusaders host in-form Linfield with Coleraine breathing down their necks

Crusaders' Declan Caddell will miss today's clash with Linfield
Andy Watters

Danske Bank Premiership: Crusaders v Linfield (today, 3pm)

CRUSADERS and Linfield met once a month in the closing stages of 2017. The Crues won all four meetings from September and December to put a large dent in the Blues' hopes to retaining their league title.

That form saw Crusaders open up a gap at the top of the table that Linfield– the reigning Danske Bank Premiership champions – have been unable to close and, although David Healy's Blues have gained some ground since the league split, they trail by 18 points going into today's Seaview showdown.

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter is minus the services of the suspended Declan Caddell for today's game and Baxter is well aware that Linfield – who go into the match after back-to-back wins over Ballymena and Glenavon – are in a good run of form.

“Linfield have found their form and that's the quality of a team like Linfield,” he said.

“I keep saying that all the teams in the top six are quality – that's why they're there. Linfield had a couple of bad results around Christmas and that knocked them out of the chase for the title, but now they've found their form over the last six, seven, eight games and they are a formidable squad, a formidable team.

“You expect to play the top teams when you get to the split and tomorrow won't be easy but we'll be giving it our best shot.”

Linfield will gladly accept a victory over their city rivals of course and should that happen the real winners could be Coleraine. Oran Kearney's side are level with the Crues at the top of the table and have a winnable home game against Ballymena United – a win for them and a loss for the Crues and it's all-change at the top.

“Coleraine have to go and win their game too,” said Baxter.

“Nothing is handed to you and that's the way it should be. All the teams are fighting for European places and all sorts of things so I don't think there'll be any games handed to anybody. We'll be concentrating on one game and that is the Linfield game.”

Linfield have made the trip across the city twice already this season and returned home with nothing to show for their efforts. They went down 2-1 in the league in September and 2-0 in the league cup in November.

“Linfield and Crusaders games over the past five years or so have been fantastic,” said Baxter.

“They've all been very hard fought games. We had a great run, then they had the better of it last year and we've had the better of it this year.

“But there's always a hair's breadth in it and you expect them to be tough because we're playing the current league champions. We expect them to be good.”

He added: “The stakes are always raised in the big games.

“There's always that wee bit more tension around them, a little bit of nerves around them but we are very experienced at this, we've been doing it a long time.

“We're not looking to get one-up on anybody, it's a game of football and we're trying to plot away to try and win it and we'll go out and give it everything we have. There's a great respect among the clubs – it's a game, but they're all big games at this stage of the season.”

Coleraine v Ballymena United

Coleraine drew level with Crusaders after their dramatic 2-1 comeback win over Cliftonville last weekend and they'll be determined to build on it this afternoon.

Jay Donnelly had given Cliftonville a first half lead but a Stephen Dooley strike and Jamie McGonigle's penalty at the death earned the Bannsiders a crucial three points.

Ballymena hit the road after back-to-back defeats against Cliftonville and Linfield.

Verdict: Coleraine

Cliftonville v Glenavon

THE Reds continue to run hot and cold, but on their day they are capable of beating anyone. Barry Gray's men take the field at Solitude after losing to Coleraine last weekend followed an impressive 3-0 win over Ballymena seven days' earlier.

Meanwhile, you have to go back to February 27 for Glenavon's last victory. The Lurgan Blues have lost four and drawn three since that success against Linfield and will need to arrest their worrying slide to have any chance of securing a place in Europe next year.

Verdict: Cliftonville

Ballinamallard United v Dungannon Swifts

THE bottom of the table 'Mallards ended their long wait for a win (only their third of the season) against Warrenpoint Town last weekend and will be hoping for two in-a-row against visitors Dungannon Swifts this afternoon.

The Tyrone outfit has won two of their last three – the wins over Carrick Rangers and Glenavon, the loss against Warrenpoint Town. Rodney McAree's side will be confident of making it three out of four today.

Verdict: Dungannon Swifts

Carrick Rangers v Ards

CARRICK Rangers have lost four on-the-trot but the first three of those losses came against good opposition in Linfield, Cliftonville and Coleraine. Last weekend's 2-0 reverse against Dungannon was a blow, but they will hope to bounce back against an Ards side that has one win in four and were beaten 4-1 on home soil by Glentoran last weekend.

Verdict: Draw

Warrenpoint Town v Glentoran

AFTER missing out on a place in the top six, Ronnie McFall's Glens lost at home against Ballymena United before bouncing back with a 4-1 win at Ards last weekend.

Third-from-bottom Warrenpoint Town have lost their last two. The sides last met in February when Glentoran hammered out a 5-0 win at The Oval.

Verdict: Glentoran

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