Linfield match is 'season decider' says Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter
IT'S the biggest league game of the campaign so far, so significant in fact that Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter calls it "a season decider".
The reigning champions, looking for a treble of titles, make the trip across the city on Saturday afternoon to play their main pursuers Linfield, with just four points separating the pair with five games to go.
When it is put to Baxter that the Windsor Blues are chasing them down, Baxter laughs: "Just a little bit!"
With the Crues losing to Coleraine last time out, and Linfield beating Ballinamallard United, David Healy's men have really set up a grandstand finish.
Victory for the home team could give the challenge of over-hauling the Shore Road side an almost irresistible look. Baxter though sounded a bullish note ahead of the much anticipated clash.
"It's a big game of football," declared the manager.
"We're looking forward to it – it's a big challenge, but listen we've played our whole season to put ourselves in this position
"So if someone had handed me a four-point lead with five games to go – I'd of broken your arm for it.
"Any lead is a good lead, so we'll take that as an advantage. Ultimately, if we lose the game – we're still in the hunt. If Linfield lose the game, the challenge is over for them.
"It's make or break for them definitely, so I feel the pressure has to be on their shoulders. We can go out and express ourselves and we'll see what we can do."
Baxter's side will have had a two week break from that Coleraine loss by the time Saturday comes around.
Linfield meanwhile have had a tough game against Dungannon Swifts since their last league outing - reaching the Irish Cup final with a 1-0 win. Baxter feels it is "hard to say" whether this will stand to their rivals or not.
"From everybody's point of view – you prepare for a football match and you can debate all you want around momentum and winning streaks and all sorts of stuff," he insisted.
"It's who turns up on the day, who wants the game, and who might make themselves a hero.
"And for me – it's a game of football, and it'll not be won in discussions – it'll be won on a football pitch.
"You just don't know – on the day you can get an off-side decision go your way or against you, you can get a penalty kick for you or against you.
"You just don't know what way that'll all pan out. And from our point of view, all we can do is prepare very professionally for the game, which we have already been doing.
"We're trying to get people mentally strong and ready to play, and we'll be ready for this game in a big way. It's a season decider really and we have to go in and go and do our business."
"Everybody is fit. Obviously Colin Coates is long term – so we've done it without him for some time. Everybody else is fighting fit and ready to go, so we'll look forward to it now."