Crusaders' manager Stephen Baxter has closed the gap to just two points in the Danske Bank Premiership ©INPHO/Stephen Hamilton


2018 kicks off in the same vein as we finished the previous year, with some crucial Danske Bank Premiership fixtures split across two days.

Monday 1 January

Ballinamallard United v Crusaders (venue: Ferney Park; kick-off: 3pm)

No manager will be glad to see the back of 2017 more than Ballinamallard United boss Gavin Dykes, but the harsh realisation is that the New Year will start with a tough ask with the visit of in-form Crusaders. The Mallards halted their losing streak with an important draw against closest rivals Carrick Rangers, it may not have been enough on Friday night but at least it prevented the gap widening further between the bottom of the table and safety.

At the other end of the Danske Bank Premiership table, the Crusaders juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down. Stephen Baxter’s Crues have now come within two points of leader’s Coleraine and remain unbeaten in the their last 17 games in all competitions. It’s been three wins from three over the hectic Christmas period as they have their sights back on bringing the title back to Seaview.

Carrick Rangers v Dungannon Swifts (venue: Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena; kick-off: 3pm)

David McAlinden will start the New Year with renewed optimism as his side desperately looks for Premiership safety come May. McAlinden has already started his recruitment drive for January, with Damien McNulty (Finn Harps) and Brendan Glackin (ex-Oldham Athletic) on board at the Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena.

Despite a solid scoreless draw against Glentoran on Saturday at Stangmore Park, Swifts boss Rodney McAree will be concerned by the lack of goal threat his side are offering, having only scored once during six games in December. They will be looking to rediscover the form that produced a fine 4-0 victory in the same fixture back in November in County Tyrone.

Coleraine v Linfield (venue: Coleraine Showgrounds; kick-off: 3pm)

Could 2018 be Coleraine’s year? Manager Oran Kearney and everyone connected with the Bannsiders would certainly hope so, but there is still a lot of football to be played; the gap was closed down over Christmas as relentless Crusaders capitalised on Coleraine dropping four points in recent weeks with draws against Ballymena United and Cliftonville.

Blues boss David Healy may have conceded defeat in the bid to retain the Danske Bank Premiership after a disastrous festive period which witnessed defeats to both Glentoran and Crusaders in the space of a week. New signings at Windsor Park are expected to follow former St. Patrick’s Athletic forward Kurtis Byrne in a refresh of Healy’s panel. The same fixture earlier in the season was one of the biggest talking points of a memorable season to date, with Jamie McGonigle’s ‘ghost’ goal winner – this game could live up to the same expectation this time around.

Tuesday 2 January

Ards v Glenavon (venue: Bangor Fuels Arena; kick-off: 7.45pm)

But only for a late Warrenpoint Town equaliser, it would have been a perfect Christmas for Colin Nixon and all the Ards supporters, as they won twice against Ballinamallard United and Carrick Rangers before Saturday’s stalemate. Those seven points have pulled the County Down side away from the wrong end of the table and now only four points (with a game in hand) off of Dungannon Swifts in eighth place. A continued run in form could see them push into the European Playoff contention in the New Year.

Gary Hamilton will still be reeling from a disappointing second half performance against Ballymena United as they finished 2017 with defeat but with still plenty to play for in the second half of the season, as they still occupy third place. A surprise face in the Lurgan Blues’ line-up on Saturday with talented winger Joel Cooper back from his studies in the United States. It’s only been a month since the two sides met at the Bangor Fuels Arena, with Glenavon running out 2-0 winners, but they will not have forgotten the 4-0 drubbing handed out by Ards in the BetMcLean League Cup back in October.

Cliftonville v Ballymena United (venue: Solitude; kick-off: 7.45pm)

Tuesday night sees a dress rehearsal for the BetMcLean Cup semi-final in two weeks time at Solitude. Cliftonville’s momentum going into Christmas is now a distant memory, following one point from their last three games which has left the Reds with a mountain to climb in 2018 to get back into contention for the Danske Bank Premiership title.

There has been little between the two sides this season with both teams in games this season with one home win apiece. Ballymena boss David Jeffrey has stressed the injury troubles that have besieged his team this campaign, but a fine 3-1 win against tile chasing Glenavon on Saturday will fill his players with confidence going a tough encounter at Solitude.

Glentoran v Warrenpoint Town (venue: The Oval; kick-off: 7.45pm)

Gary Haveron’s Glentoran return to the Oval for the first time since their memorable Boxing Day victory over Linfield, however they dropped into the bottom half of the Premiership table following the goalless draw with Dungannon Swifts on Saturday. Emphasis will always be on an inconsistent Glentoran team to pick up points against the teams in the bottom half, and whilst they have dropped points to the Swifts and Carrick Rangers over Christmas, they can look to two wins from two against Warrenpoint Town already this season.

Warrenpoint Town will want to shore up a leaky defence in 2018, which seen them concede three goals in four of their six Premiership games throughout December. Scoring goals hasn’t been a problem for the border side and performances have been encouraging as manager Matthew Tipton’s frustration has come with turning draws into wins, as they look to ensure their Danske Bank Premiership safety.