Football/Soccer

Crusaders and Coleraine set to battle for League Cup glory

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter and his Coleraine counterpart Oran Kearney will both be aiming to collect the League Cup.

Northern Ireland League Cup Final: Coleraine v Crusaders (Windsor Park, 7.30pm tonight)

AMONG the five clean sheets Crusaders kept during January, the most highly-regarded would surely be the one at the Coleraine Showgrounds.

Even avoiding defeat against the Bannsiders would have been welcome, after two losses earlier in the campaign, but a first half header from Jordan Owens took maximum points for the Crues, as did their other three league games last month.

Coleraine were undoubtedly the toughest of their January tests, and although tonight is just one of the massive matches on the Seaview side’s agenda – with Linfield, Glentoran (Irish Cup), and Cliftonville in the north Belfast derby all coming up – their focus will be fully on this final.

Both clubs are involved in one of the tightest and yet widest titles races ever, but Crues manager Stephen Baxter doesn’t feel the outcome of tonight’s decider will influence any other competitions: “You just have to play the game and not get too carried about what may happen or what it may lead to.”

Certainly neither club will take this trophy lightly as neither has enjoyed much success in this competition, with Coleraine’s only triumph coming way back in November 1987, edging out Portadown after extra time.

The Crues have at least won twice, in 1996-97 and then eight years ago – against Coleraine. That was one of five League Cup final defeats for the Bannsiders, but the Crues have suffered the same number of setbacks, including to arch-rivals Cliftonville in both 2013 and 2014.

Yet Baxter is clearly a boss who accentuates the positive, as evidenced by his recall of their meetings with Coleraine in the early part of this season, saying: “The three games between us have been brilliant, nothing between us as regards to the odd goal winning them.”

However, Crusaders went to Coleraine as league leaders in mid-September – and suffered a 4-2 defeat, with the visitors’ second goal only coming very late on.

A month later Seaview hosted the reverse fixture, but again the Bannsiders won by two goals, 2-0, a result that also took them top of the table.

Similarly, despite the disappointing 2-1 defeat at Glenavon last time out, Baxter takes a wider view and says “we’re coming into the game on a bit of form.”

Coleraine could make that claim with arguably more confidence, having bounced back brilliantly from that home loss with a run of four clean sheets, including important league wins over Cliftonville and big-spending Glentoran.

Oran Kearney’s also won handsomely at tonight’s venue in the semi-final, dumping out holders Linfield 3-0, having ousted the Glens earlier in their run.

Various sub-plots add further intrigue to the mix: the Lowry brothers, Coleraine’s Stephen and Philip of Crusaders, are likely to clash in midfield in a final for the first time; the Bannsiders’ Josh Carson is also hoping for a first final appearance after missing out on the 2017 and 2018 Irish Cup Finals – both won by his colleagues (Linfield and Coleraine respectively).

Baxter is optimistic about an occasion to savour: “It’s got a real ‘big game’ flavour to it. Coleraine are a class team, big support... It has all the hallmarks of a good game – let’s hope it does turn into that as sometimes cup finals can disappoint as regards the quality, nerves can take over.”

You wouldn’t bet on this being a classic, especially if it’s wet and windy, but you can probably put money on another close encounter.

PATHS TO FINAL:

Coleraine:

Second round: Coleraine 4-0 Annagh United

Third round: Coleraine 2-1 Glentoran

Quarter-final: Dundela 1-5 Coleraine

Semi-final: Linfield 0-3 Coleraine

Crusaders:

Second round: Bye

Third round: Limavady United 1-4 Crusaders

Quarter-final: Ballymena United 1-2 Crusaders (aet)

Semi-final: Crusaders 2-0 Institute

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Football/Soccer