Coleraine face tricky trip to Cliftonville as Glens host Linfield in BetMcLean Cup semi-finals
BetMcLean Cup semi-finals: Cliftonville (holders) v Coleraine (Solitude, 7.45pm); Glentoran v Linfield (The Oval, 7.45pm)
DERBY rivals rarely do each other any favours – and Ballymena United certainly haven't helped Coleraine's chance of making it to the BetMcLean Cup Final.
The Bannsiders' task would already be fairly tough, travelling to take on Cliftonville at Solitude where the hosts haven't lost yet this season.
Yet the fact that the Reds were thumped 4-1 at Ballymena on Saturday, ending an eight-match unbeaten run, will surely make Paddy McLaughlin's men all the more determined to maintain their grip on the trophy by returning to winning ways.
However, Coleraine boss Oran Kearney insists that won't alter the nature of the challenge his team faces tonight:
"That's no real concern of ours – it's a cup semi-final and I've a fair idea what they look like from the past few years. Any time we play Cliftonville, we need to be bang on it if we want to get a result.
"It's always tough against Cliftonville, home or away. The reward is a place in the League Cup Final, that's something everybody would like. If you're going to earn a spot in that you're going to have to put in a big performance, no matter where that may be."
Coleraine have certainly got one side of their game right in recent weeks, keeping four consecutive clean sheets in the League. They have only scored four goals in those matches, but that run notably did include a 2-0 win at leaders Larne.
Kearney has discerned his team getting better, acknowledging: "It's been a good few weeks for us. We made a few adjustments from the start of the season, we'd a lot of new players in, so it took a bit of time for everybody to settle.
"The last month or so we've seen big signs of the direction we want to go. Clean sheets are brilliant, a big help. Another one [tonight] would be a good start."
The likelihood appears slim on recent form between these two clubs: Cliftonville lifted this Cup last season after a thrilling 4-3 extra time triumph over Coleraine, who won 3-1 in this campaign's league opener, before the Reds wreaked revenge 4-2.
That was one of six league losses for Coleraine, but tonight isn't about 'concentrating on the cups' as Kearney hasn't ruled them out of the title race just yet:
"It's not something we would really look at until the far side of Christmas. For us it's about trying to be in contention, trying to be in the mix.
"At the minute, we're only six points off second, but we've also got a big few weeks where we've got to keep putting in good performances to the level that we have done over the past month.
"If we can keep doing that and, more importantly, keep picking up points, then we could be in the mix around January time. If you are, then it's about how long you can hold on."
Tonight, though, the last two winners of this trophy will do battle.
So will the two clubs that have won it the most times, Linfield (10) and Glentoran (7). Somewhat surprisingly, though, the Blues' victory in 2019 is the only time either of them has reached a League Cup Final since 2010, when the east Belfast outfit last won it.
The Glens are on a poor recent run of results, only winning one of their last five, with defeats by Glenavon, Cliftonville, and then at Crusaders on Saturday.
Still, they're only a point behind the Blues with two matches in hand, and won the only league meeting so far, 3-0, in stormy circumstances at Windsor Park in mid-October.
Linfield won 2-1 at home last month in a County Antrim Shield semi-final. The venue is different tonight, but another fiery encounter is almost certain.