Gary Smyth started his second spell as HW Welders boss with a defeat last week (c) Presseye

PREVIEW: BLUEFIN SPORT CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK 22

The busy festive season of football in the Bluefin Sport Championship kicks-off on Saturday afternoon with all to play for at both ends of the table!

Ards v Loughgall (venue: Bangor Fuels Arena; kick-off: 3pm)

John Bailie made a winning start to his tenure as new Ards manager last week against Dundela at Wilgar Park, the challenge is now to try and claw back the deficit on the top four, with the fifth placed side currently having games on hand on all of the leading pack. Bailie will be without leading goalscorer Michael McLellan through suspension for the clash.

The Villagers were rocked by a last minute defeat to Queens University last Saturday as they lost further ground on second place with Ballinamallard United opening up a four point gap in the race for promotion. Dean Smith’s side bounced back with progression to the final of the Mid-Ulster Cup in midweek, defeating Annagh United comfortably. Loughgall played out a scoreless draw in the previous meeting between these sides at Lakeview Park, but will be without Dale Malone who is suspended.

HW Welders v Ballyclare Comrades (venue: Tillysburn Park; kick-off: 2pm)

The return for Gary Smyth to the Welders dugout last Saturday didn’t go to script as they fell to defeat to East Belfast neighbours Knockbreda at Tillysburn Park. Winger Dylan Davidson has left the club this week to join Gary Hamilton’s Glenavon side in another blow for HW Welders. The home side go into this game in ninth place but only four points behind their visitors in the standings.

Ballyclare Comrades would be content with a similar performance to the stunning 8-0 win in the reverse fixture at Dixon Park back in August. Paul Harbinson’s side were in goalscoring form last weekend as well, as they fired six past PSNI at the Dub to take them within two points of the top six – they have won their last two games away from home in the league and will aim to make it three in a row come Saturday evening.

Knockbreda v Dergview (venue: Breda Park; kick-off: 2pm)

Colin McIlrath secured a huge three points for Knockbreda last Saturday away to the Welders, that victory moved the East Belfast club level on points with Dergview, with only goal difference keeping them at the bottom of the pile. With renewed confidence, Knockbreda could potentially pull themselves out of the relegation zone for the first time this season with a victory – however, they suffered a 3-1 defeat in the most recent meeting between the two sides last month.

Despite having two games in hand on their relegation rivals, Dergview boss Ivan Sproule will want to keep the distance between them and Knockbreda in this must win encounter. It’s been three weeks since Dergview played a competitive game due to back-to-back postponements – their last outing was the 1-1 draw with Ballyclare Comrades back at the end of November.

Newry City v Dundela (venue: Newry Showgrounds; kick-off: 3pm)

Sixth placed Newry City were without a game on Saturday past, as they continued to hold onto their top half berth by just two points. It has been an inconsistent season for Darren Mullen’s men who have only won once since the start of November, having seen their promotion hopes of returning to the Premiership fade away. Full-back Darren King is suspended for this game.

Dundela were rocked by a 3-0 defeat to Ards last weekend in a game that dented their hopes of competing for a promotion place come the end of the season. They are 14 points behind leaders Portadown heading into the busy festive period of the season and have Ryan McBride out through suspension this weekend. The two sides couldn’t be separated when they met back in August, drawing 1-1 at Wilgar Park.

Portadown v PSNI (venue: Shamrock Park; kick-off: 3pm)

Emotions were high at Portadown last week as they fell to a defeat to Ballinamallard United which cut the Ports’ lead at the top of the Championship to just three points. Matthew Tipton must refocus his players as they return to Shamrock Park and welcome PSNI to Mid-Ulster. The Mallards defeat was only the third of the season for the club and a first in eight outings for the meanest defence in the Championship last Saturday evening.

Phil Lewis took charge of PSNI last Saturday in their heavy defeat to Ballyclare Comrades, the South Belfast club must regroup after the departure of manager Sammy McFadden to Ards in the last fortnight. PSNI are currently only two points from safety as they hover above the drop zone in tenth place, however they faired well in their last meeting against Portadown earlier this season, only succumbing to a late Paddy McNally goal against the league leaders.

Queens University v Ballinamallard United (venue: The Dub; kick-off: 2pm)

Queens University secured a memorable stoppage time victory over Loughgall last Saturday thanks to David Magee to make it two wins on the bounce for the Students. Those victories lift Peter Thompson’s men ten points clear of the relegation zone and looking towards the top half of the table in their first season in senior football.

Ryan Campbell bagged his 18th league goal of a stellar campaign last Saturday against the Ports as Ballinamallard reopened the title race at Ferney Park with their 4-2 victory over the leaders. Campbell was also on target in the only other meeting this season between these two sides, as Harry McConkey’s men won 2-0 back in September in Fermanagh, with John Edgar also on the scoresheet that afternoon.