Soccer

Reds out to end bittersweet season on a high in Uefa Europa Conference League Play-offs

Ronan Hale could hold the key to Reds success
Ronan Hale could hold the key to Reds success Ronan Hale could hold the key to Reds success

SUN, sea, sand and Sangria. Everybody loves a July trip to the continent and Irish footballers are no different. 

With the season now gone, just four clubs battle on for the last remaining qualification spot in the Europa Conference League by way of the play-offs.

As part of a semi-final double header, fourth placed finishers Cliftonville entertain seventh placed Coleraine at Solitude. 

At the same time across town, third placed Glentoran host in-form seventh place side Glenavon at the Oval.

First up, the meeting of north Belfast and north coast.  

Both Cliftonville and Coleraine will be disappointed as their respective seasons fizzled out during the top-six fixtures, each side losing three games.

The Reds looked like outside contenders for the title going into the last five fixtures. 

Paddy McLaughlin then left before the season was out to become assistant at Derry City with Declan O’Hara stepping in.

The sides may point to their lack of full-time set-ups as one potential reason why they fell by the wayside in the latter stages of the league but they will be hoping for a rejuvenation at Solitude.  

Both teams possess serious goalscoring talent.  

Cliftonville dangerman Ronan Hale managed 18 league goals, but the Bannsiders’ Matthew Shevlin did even better, scoring 23.

Coleraine will be disappointed by a lowly sixth place finish and a League Cup final loss to Linfield. To compete next season they will need the funds that Europe provides.

There is little to separate the two in meetings this year, having claimed two victories each. Four of the six fixtures (including cup games) have ended 2-2 in normal time, so plenty of action should be expected.

Next, the battle of the Glens.  Glentoran were pipped to the post for the second automatic qualification spot by bitter rivals Linfield on the last day of the regular season.  

A win at Crusaders was not enough to overcome the Blues and they will be hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s final when they threw away a 2-0 advantage at home to Larne to eventually lose 4-2 after extra time.

Rodney McAree has got the east Belfast side running hot since taking the reins in January after the departure of Mick McDermott. 

A significant blip in form pre-Christmas denied McAree from having the chance to genuinely challenge Larne for the title, but they have battled hard and finished their top-six campaign with a respectable record of three wins, a draw and only one defeat which was to the champions.

The Oval men will be grateful for the likely return of Shay McCartan and captain Marcus Kane after the pair missed the last number of weeks through injury.

Gary Hamilton has also got his side peaking at just the right time. 

The Lurgan Blues are currently on a 10-game unbeaten run and, whatever the result, hopes will be raised for next season.  

The Mourneview side are also the only team in the Premiership that have prevented Glentoran from picking up a win in their encounters this season. 

A win at Mournview Park and away at the Oval, alongside a draw, is a credible outcome for a side that finished four places behind their opponents in the table. 

After being rested last time out, dangerman Matthew Fitzpatrick, Sean Ward and Robbie Garret are all expected to return to the fold.

The winners of tonight’s games meet on Saturday evening (5.30pm) with the highest league finishers playing host.