Belfast Telegraph

Crusaders can handle title heat

By Scott Young

It's crunch time in the Irish League League season. Who can handle the pressure and grasp glory in the race for the title and Irish Cup?

A lot of big questions are going to be answered this week - starting tonight with crucial league games - and then there's the big Premiership showdown between Crusaders and Linfield at Seaview next weekend.

For the league title I'm sticking with Crusaders despite their wobble at Carrick Rangers.

But I think the Crues should fear more Irish Cup pain as I fancy Glenavon to get the better of them on Friday night and book a final date with Linfield.

With regard to the Gibson Cup race, I watched the champions get back on track with Saturday's win over Dungannon Swifts and it was one of the biggest results of the season for them.

Had they lost that it would have been two defeats on the spin and the questions would really have been asked of them.

The gap would have been two points and a rejuvenated Linfield side would have smelt blood.

I think Stephen Baxter deserves a lot of praise for switching from the 4-2-3-1 formation to 4-4-2 and they looked a lot more dangerous.

That change of approach was a defining moment of the season for me and once again Paul Heatley pulled them out of the fire.

When the top two meet next weekend I would fancy Baxter to revert back to the 4-2-3-1 formation as it makes them hard to break down.

Tonight's Premiership battles throw up intriguing top v bottom affairs and the Crues and Linfield can expect very tough games at Ballinamallard and Warrenpoint Town respectively.

But experience helps in these pressure situations and Crusaders have plenty of players who have been down this road before and know how to handle it.

The Crues could probably get away with one slip-up but Linfield know they can't and it's a win or bust picture for them until the end of the season. On the Tennent's Irish Cup, with the greatest of respect to Lurgan Celtic, I fully expect Linfield to beat them and progress to the final.

The Championship One side have won many admirers for their fantastic run and it's an incredible achievement but it ends here.

The Friday night semi-final is harder to call but Glenavon are possibly the toughest obstacle that the Crues could face.

Crusaders are not playing some of the magnificent free-flowing football they showed earlier in the season and they are very reliant on Paul Heatley.

If Glenavon can find a way of stifling him - which isn't easy - then they can make the final.

Glenavon don't have a game this evening while the Crues have to a difficult game at Ballinamallard.

It's make-or-break time at both ends of the table.

But if Crusaders can put their foot on the gas, the title race could be over by next weekend.

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