Gavin Whyte has been in fine form for Crusaders can he continue against Linfield on Saturday? ©INPHO/Stephen Hamilton


Has the Danske Bank Premiership title race gone from being a five horse race to only three front runners after the Christmas fixtures? This weekend's fixtures could confirm that, we preview another set of big games.

Friday 29 December

Carrick Rangers v Ballinamallard United (venue: Belfast Loughshore Hotels Arena; kick-off: 7.45pm)

The bottom two sides meet at the Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena and the importance of this Danske Bank Premiership clash at the bottom of the table cannot be understated for either side, as both sides face being cut adrift in the New Year.

David McAlinden’s Carrick Rangers halted an alarming run of form with a morale boosting point against Glentoran last week thanks to Eamon McAllister’s late goal. Whilst opponents Ballinamallard United narrowly lost their last two games, it took their unwanted run to 18 defeats from 21 games to date. Gavin Dykes only league victory this season came against Carrick Rangers back in October.

BetMcLean odds: Carrick Rangers win [11/10], Draw [13/5], Ballinamallard United win [15/8]

Saturday 30 December

Ballymena United v Glenavon (venue: Ballymena Showgrounds; kick-off: 3pm)

Billed as the game that always produces goals – both sides have plenty to play for. Glenavon remain in the title race whilst others have faltered in the last week and despite the Sky Blues only picking one point from their last two games, the performances against the top two teams in the Danske Bank Premiership (Crusaders & Coleraine) have been encouraging for David Jeffrey.

Games between the two sides have been fairly one sided this season in Glenavon’s favour, with Gary Hamilton’s side winning 6-1 and 4-0, respectively against the Braidmen.

BetMcLean odds: Ballymena United win [13/5], Draw [3/1], Glenavon win [8/11]

Cliftonville v Coleraine (venue: Solitude; kick-off: 3pm)

Has two crucial defeats to their title challengers killed the Reds’ hope of bringing the Gibson Cup back to Solitude? Cliftonville manager Barry Gray was less than pleased with his side’s showing in particular against Crusaders on Boxing Day and whilst this game at home to Coleraine could be redemption for his players – it will ultimately be make or break against the league leaders if they are to stay in the title race.

The Bannsiders have come through the first part of their festive fixtures relatively unscathed, with a win over Warrenpoint Town and a draw against rivals Ballymena United keeping them as the Danske Bank Premiership forerunners. They travel to Solitude having been one of the few sides to take three points from the North Belfast venue earlier in the season and with Eoin Bradley back from injury and Stephen Dooley waiting in the wings, Oran Kearney is primed for the second half of the season.

BetMcLean odds: Cliftonville win [7/4], Draw [13/5], Coleraine win [23/20]

Dungannon Swifts v Glentoran (venue: Stangmore Park; kick-off: 3pm)

This is a game that is a key fixture in the race for the top half with both clubs battling out for sixth place. David Armstrong’s goal was enough to see the Swifts over the line to a Boxing Day victory over Ballinamallard United and keeping them in the mix with Ballymena United and Saturday’s opponents, Glentoran.

No-one is likely to have enjoyed Boxing Day more than Glentoran manager Gary Haveron, who watched his side sneak a famous late victory in front of a sell-out crowd at the Oval. That success against their derby rivals now must be channelled into the second half of the season – and they will go to Stangmore Park confident having already defeat Rodney McAree’s side twice this season already in the Danske Bank Premiership.

BetMcLean odds: Dungannon Swifts win [9/5], Draw [23/10], Glentoran win [5/4]

Linfield v Crusaders (venue: Windsor Park; kick-off: 3pm)

Linfield manager David Healy has conceded defeat in his side’s chances of retaining the Gibson Cup as his team cruelly lost to Glentoran on Boxing Day. However, they will not be going down without a fight especially against Crusaders – an opponent that has produced some titanic battles this season alone in the live Sky Sports broadcast and in the BetMcLean League Cup.

Whilst the Blues have been faltering, Stephen Baxter’s Crues have the bit between their teeth and enjoyed two hard earned victories over Ballymena United and Cliftonville in the last week. Their relentless pursuit of Coleraine has brought them within four points now with a game in hand, so this game against their cross city rivals will be vital at Windsor Park.

BetMcLean odds: Linfield win [13/8], Draw [13/5], Crusaders win [5/4]

Warrenpoint Town v Ards (venue: Milltown; kick-off: 3pm)

The big winners of the festive fixtures to date have been Colin Nixon’s Ards side who with two wins on the trot have pulled away from the danger of a relegation battle and are now looking closer to the teams above them chasing sixth position, they will go to Warrenpoint Town confident of potentially making it a third win in succession.

By contrast, the sun is shining brighter in North Down than in South Down this winter, as two defeats to Coleraine and Glenavon has left manager Matthew Tipton frustrated as his side are still sitting perilously close to the relegation places in tenth position. Picking up points against rival teams in the bottom half will be imperative to the Warrenpoint’s safety in this league.

BetMcLean odds: Warrenpoint Town win [7/5], Draw [13/5], Ards win [7/5]