Cliftonville have to win North Belfast derby against Crusaders to keep Europa Cup chances alive
Danske Bank Premiership: Cliftonville v Crusaders (Solitude, tomorrow, 3pm)
FOURTH-placed Glenavon could profit most from a win for the Reds this afternoon but victory will keep Cliftonville's hopes of a Europa League place alive.
That should spur on Paddy McLaughlin's men but north Belfast bragging rights are usually motivation enough for both sides in what is always a keenly-contested derby.
“First and foremost, games against Crusaders are always feisty affairs,” said midfielder Liam Bagnall.
“We haven't played particularly well in these games this season, they've definitely had the upperhand in terms of results. Hopefully we can fix that.
“A top three finish and is something we haven't really focussed on but now, with three games left, the opportunity is still there and we have to win and see where it leaves us heading into the Linfield game on Tuesday night.”
Crusaders have won all three games against their neighbours this season but the Reds go into this afternoon's game having lost just two of their last 10, a run that includes six wins.
“We've made ourselves harder to beat,” said Bagnall.
“We've focussed on working the ball out from the back, trying to keep clean sheets and give ourselves a platform to build on. We've got players up front who are always going to be a threat and always going to score goals so it was always going to be important that we made ourselves hard to beat and thankfully results have improved in the last couple of months.”
Stephen Baxter's Crusaders earned a 2-0 victory over the Reds when the sides met at Seaview in March and Bagnall has played enough games against the Crues to know that Cliftonville have to start by matching them physically today.
“I was fortunate enough last year to be involved when we beat them in the cup at home,” he said.
“We beat them in the league as well but in general Crusaders have had the upperhand and we know it's going to be a tough test tomorrow.
“You always know what you're going to get with Crusaders, they're going to be direct and they're going to be physical and competitive and you have to match that to begin with. If you don't match that, and a lot of teams don't, you don't give yourself a chance in the game.
“They have some of the best players in the Irish League. Paul Heatley, in my opinion, is probably the best individual player in the league on his day so we're going to have to match the threats that they have and give ourselves a platform to show what we can do on the big occasion.
“We haven't lost too many since Paddy took over so it's important for us to keep that going and see how many points we can get on the board between now and the final game next Saturday against Glenavon.”
Crusaders could move to within a point of second place if Ballymena lose to Coleraine today.
"It's very tight but it's great for the league - it keeps people on their toes until the end of the season," said manager Baxter.
"We get a couple of bites of the cherry with the cup final but we've still three big football games to play before that and we'll give everything we have."
Linfield v Glenavon
WITH the league title already wrapped up, Linfield have only pride to play for tomorrow but Glenavon's Europa League rivals will be praying that the Blues maintain their focus until the end of the season.
Gary Hamilton's Lurgan Blues turned Linfield over 2-0 at Mourneview last month and repeat of that scoreline would do very nicely for the county Armagh outfit who could be sitting third by tea time if they win and Crusaders lose at home against Cliftonville.
Ballymena United v Coleraine
BOTH sides have lost form at a crucial stage of the season and have only one point to show from their last three games.
However, the Bannsiders can secure second place and automatic qualification for the Europa League if they win, Crusaders lose and Glenavon drop points at Cliftonville.
"The race is on to make Europe - that's our focus," said manager David Jeffrey.
"We'd love to get there automatically and big performances are needed in our final three games."
Coleraine are some way off the pace but they will be out for revenge after Ballymena hammered them 4-0 in the league last month.
Prediction: Ballymena United
Institute FC v Ards
ARDS have competed well with the traditional big guns but lost to their rivals in the bottom half of the table in recent weeks. Two draws with Glentoran and another with Crusaders yielded three points but a lot of that good work was undone by losses to Newry City and Warrenpoint Town.
Ards now sit three points behind Darren Mullen's Newry and desperately need results to go their way this afternoon.
Mid-table Institute have little to play for but had beaten Coleraine and Warrenpoint before their run came to an end against Dungannon last weekend.
Warrenpoint Town v Dungannon Swifts
WARRENPOINT finished with nine men and lost last weekend's county Down derby 4-2 against Newry City. That was their second loss on-the-trot but they can move to within two points of Dungannon with victory this afternoon.
The Swifts ended a three-game losing streak against Institute and will travel with confidence having beaten Warrenpoint three times already this season.
Prediction: Dungannon Swifts