PREVIEW: DANSKE BANK PREMIERSHIP WEEK 18

It’s too tight to call at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership as could there be another twist in the title race come Saturday evening, as we look ahead to a full schedule of games.

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

Niall Currie felt aggrieved that his side didn’t come away with at least a point from their trip to the Coleraine Showgrounds last Saturday after leading twice during the game. The East Antrim club have dropped down into ninth place but still with a comfortable six point cushion over the dreaded relegation zone.

Glenavon’s season finally sparked to life this past week, as two wins from games against Linfield (Friday) and Institute (Tuesday) moved Gary Hamilton’s men up into eight position – level on points with Ballymena United. Hamilton himself rolled back the years in front of the television audience against Linfield as the Lurgan Blues aim to set their sights on the top half of the table going into a busy Christmas period.

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

Paddy McLaughlin’s stay at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership lasted only one week as Coleraine capitalised on the Reds draw against Larne, to push the Solitude side back into second place. It’s also only been ten days since Glentoran’s last visit to Cliftonville – the Reds progressed to the semi-finals of the County Antrim Shield recently thanks to a single goal from talisman Joe Gormley.

Both sides have come a long way since the Europa League Playoff meeting in May, Glentoran are currently only eight points off the top of the league with a game in hand going into the trip to Solitude. Mick McDermott’s side made light work of Dungannon Swifts at the Oval on Saturday past, winning 6-1. The hat-trick for striker Robbie McDaid against the Swifts has moved him to double figures (10) in the league just behind Joe Gormley (14) in the divisional goalscoring chart.

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

Where does Swifts manager Kris Lindsay go from here? He must pick his depleted side up after another defeat, this time against Glentoran at the Oval last Saturday – that is an eighth straight defeat in all competitions for the County Tyrone outfit. Captain Sean Clucas is still suspended as his side look to improve on the 3-0 defeat at Seaview in the most recent between the clubs earlier this season.

Crusaders ground out a 1-0 victory away to bottom club Warrenpoint Town last Saturday to keep the North Belfast side in the title mix. Jordan Owens’ first half goal was enough to keep the Crues within just three points of the front two heading into the weekend’s trip to Dungannon Swifts. Stephen Baxter has recruited three players directly from Dungannon during the past season – Jarlath O’Rourke, Paul McElroy and Chris Hegarty, all could feature against their former club this weekend.

Institute v Coleraine (venue: Brandywell Stadium; kick-off: 1pm)

Despite a well earned point for ‘Stute at the Ballymena Showgrounds on Saturday past, it’s still as you were in eleventh place for the division’s draw specialists. Sean Connor’s side followed their point up in midweek with defeat to Glenavon on Tuesday evening and the tough games just keep coming as they welcome Coleraine to the Brandywell on Saturday but will be without suspended duo Ryan Morrow and Aidan McCauley for the clash of the North West sides.

Oran Kearney’s Bannsiders climbed back to the top of the table on goal difference last Saturday, as teenager Alex Gawne proved the unlikely hero with the winning goal against Carrick Rangers at the Showgrounds. The last time Institute met Coleraine, it ended in a scoreless stalemate back in August but this time around Aaron Canning is suspended for the home side – as they aim to keep the title charge alive heading into a busy December month.

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

At Windsor Park, the big games keep coming for David Healy’s Blues as they aim to retain the Gibson Cup – this week it’s the visit of in-form Larne. Following their televised defeat to Glenavon last Friday, Linfield showed their title credentials in midweek by grinding out a 2-1 win against Ballymena United to consolidate fourth place in the table, with two games in hand on their peers. The late red card for midfielder Bastien Hery at the Showgrounds means he sits out the visit of Larne.

It’s the first time Larne have faced Linfield since their promotion back to the top-flight and they go into the trip to Belfast having gone five games unbeaten in the Danske Bank Premiership – the latest of which was their credible 1-1 draw with title chasing Cliftonville at Inver Park seven days ago. Both Tomas Cosgrove and Johnny McMurray are suspended for Tiernan Lynch’s side heading for their trip to the reigning champions.

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

Barry Gray may have tightened up the leakiest defence in the Danske Bank Premiership in recent weeks, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the challenge of Crusaders at Milltown last Saturday as the County Down club fell to a narrow 1-0 defeat. That reverse leaves the ‘Point still bottom of the table, but within three points of nearest rivals Institute in their bid for safety. Defender Dermot McVeigh is suspended for the visit of one of his former clubs this weekend.

It’s also been a tough time for Ballymena United boss David Jeffrey as he endures one of the worst runs of his distinguished managerial career as the Sky Blues are currently nine games without a league win. That run continues on Tuesday night with a 2-1 defeat to Linfield at the Showgrounds, which currently leaves United seventh in the table and five points away from the top six going into the trip to Warrenpoint.