Cliftonville and Crusdaders creating a real buzz
Tommy Breslin wants his big name players to go for the jugular against Crusaders tonight (5.30pm).
Even though his star strikers Joe Gormley (31) and Liam Boyce (17) have netted 48 goals between them this season, the Cliftonville boss has demanded his side rediscover their killer instinct in front of goal.
The league champions haven't been ruthlessly carving open teams like they did last season – including Crusaders in the League Cup final – but Breslin wants them to be back in the old routine at Solitude in this evening's Wasp Solutions League Cup decider.
It's an intriguing battle between the domestic game's most lethal strikeforce and its meanest defence and Breslin wants his hitmen to deliver.
"I would never question the character or ability of my players," said Breslin. "It's just frustrating that we aren't killing teams off in the manner we did last season.
"We could have won by a lot more at Ards but it finished 3-2. Last year we would have been more ruthless and clinical.
"Liam and Joe have received a lot of praise but we have missed Stephen Garrett, who chipped in with goals for us, and Ciaran Caldwell.
"Maybe we are too keen and going direct instead of working the openings.
"We have got those two (Boyce and Gormley) and long may it continue but others need to chip in.
"It's not just about the forwards, the midfielders should be slipping more passes in and when you have a cushion of two or three goals that gives you the licence to play better.
"We haven't played for 90 minutes in matches – the Linfield win was an exception.
"We had the same back four against Linfield so it is a Jekyll and Hyde show from us. The potential is still there, we just need to realise it."
After exiting the Irish Cup this week and falling behind Linfield in the title sprint, Cliftonville are under significant pressure to win tonight's derby but Breslin believes players who aspire to greatness should thrive under pressure.
"You can talk about pressure but players play the game to get into cup finals," added Breslin.
"My message to the players is why not just go out there and enjoy it. There's obviously a certain amount of expectation but I prefer to look at it as an opportunity for the players to go out and demonstrate their skills.
"It's at Solitude but no better place for it to be at."
Breslin will demand a better showing from his troops than the 4-3 loss at Coleraine that prolonged their Irish Cup woe.
"We could have done without Tuesday night but this is a final and if the players can't get up for a final they shouldn't be here," he added.
"I've no doubt they will and with the ability they have I've no doubt they'll raise their game – they certainly need to. I've no doubt that you will see a completely different performance."
Baxter has no desire to dwell on past horrors
Stephen Baxter's song of choice in the karaoke jukebox this weekend would be the Oasis anthem 'Don't Look Back In Anger'
The Crusaders manager has experienced the incredible highs and crushing lows of cup finals but he also knows that your past doesn't determine your future.
Baxter guided his men to Irish Cup glory in 2009 – after beating Cliftonville in the decider – but the same tournament broke his heart in 2011 and 2012 when Linfield overcame the Hatchetmen in the final.
But in a remarkable 2011/12 campaign, the Seaview trophy cabinet was unlocked to make space for the League Cup and Setanta Cup.
However, last season the Shore Road battlers finished runner-up to the Reds in the league title race and their neighbours blew them away 4-0 in the League Cup final at Windsor Park. Players will remember how they felt after that shattering loss but the motivation to win a cup final should always exist and Baxter doesn't feel that dwelling too much on negative times is healthy.
"We've tasted a little bit of success but we have also tasted the bitterness of cup final defeats," said Baxter, who has snapped up Richard Clarke from Glentoran in a two-and-a-half year deal.
"We lost two Irish Cup finals to Linfield and we lost the final of this tournament last season. If you lose, you lose. You can dominate a game but lose 1-0 or you can lose heavily.
"I'm just one of these people who refuses to reflect too much on what went before because it's what's in front of you that is important.
"The players are competing hard to get into the team so we don't reflect too far back on how we felt back then. The personnel changes and players move on. It's all about professional preparation and we are focused on that.
"We play for five trophies in this country and I want to get to as many finals as I can. We have been in a raft of finals in recent seasons and it's great. You never get tired of winning a trophy."
While friendships will be on hold for 90 minutes this evening, Baxter is always happy to refer to the mutual appreciation society both clubs belong to.
"There will be a great atmosphere with both sets of fans coming in big numbers and it's great because the relationships between the clubs are magnificent," added Baxter.
The rise of the Crues and Reds has even encouraged some of their fans to refer to the north-Belfast rivals as the Irish League's 'new Big Two' but Baxter can't support that view.
"The two clubs are a credit to their country and to their supporters and the people who are associated with the clubs," added the 1995 and 1997 title winner with the Crues.
"We have both been on amazing journeys but we can never be the Big Two. We aren't trying to be the Big Two either. I prefer to call us a 'wee team' and we are both doing our best.
"That suits me – we are the Belfast wee 'Big Two!"
Cliftonville aces will perform under pressure: Smyth
Cliftonville's backs are against the wall and it's time to silence the critics.
The Red's County Antrim Shield and Irish Cup dreams are already over and the form that catapulted them to the league title last year has largely deserted them.
A failure to win tonight's Wasp Solutions League Cup final could lead to a trophyless campaign for Tommy Breslin's charges.
It's a frightening thought given the talent in the Reds dressing room, but tonight's opponents Crusaders experienced that feeling last season and football can be a cruel game.
Cliftonville centre-half Marc Smyth accepts the spotlight is on his side at Solitude as the Sky Sports cameras are switched on, but he believes they can handle the heat.
"We are up against it, but I feel that when this team is put under pressure it delivers and comes up with the answers," said Smyth, who enjoyed spells in Scotland with Ayr United, Partick Thistle, Airdrie United and Greenock Morton.
"I actually feel that when we are in our comfort zone we are not as good. I think the real qualities of the players shines through when we have to deliver.
"An example of that was the Linfield game when we were faced with a make or break scenario. We responded by beating them 3-0.
"Recent results have been disappointing, but I'm confident we can produce when it matters in the final. We also have to claw our way back into the title race, I would say we would have to win virtually all our games. It's a big ask, but we won't give up."
Smyth was dancing a jig of delight on the Windsor Park pitch a year ago when the Crues were battered 4-0 in last season's League Cup decider but he doesn't expect lightning to strike twice.
"Can we win 4-0 again?" he asks. "Yes we can – we have the players who can win emphatically again, but do I think we will – no.
"Crusaders are a hard team to beat and maybe we exploited the big open spaces of Windsor.
"I was looking at the last few games we have faced the Crues in cup competitions and we have edged them so hopefully that trend can continue."
McGovern wary of revenge mission
Jaimie McGovern accepts Crusaders will be on a revenge mission tonight but he's backing the Reds to show their true colours.
Cliftonville overcame their neighbours in the League Cup final and Irish Cup semi-finals last season and the tasty cherry on the cake was a first league title triumph in 15 years.
Tommy Breslin's men have enjoyed the bragging rights after some huge battles, but the Hatchetmen are looking to turn the tide in this evening's Wasp Solutions League Cup showdown at Solitude.
Former Glentoran defender McGovern understands the Crues will be fired up but he also feels there is deep disappointment in the Reds dressing room over the players' failure to reproduce the magic of last season.
The Solitude men have slipped behind Linfield in the title race and their Irish Cup dream ended in Coleraine on Tuesday night.
Crusaders will take on Linfield in the final of the County Antrim Shield and, as the Reds have opted out of the Setanta Cup, this decider could be Cliftonville's last shot at silverware.
So while the Crues are thirsty for revenge, Breslin's boys know there is more than pride at stake as well.
"There's no doubt they will be hurting," said McGovern.
"We beat them in the League Cup final and Irish Cup semi-final last season. We also beat them in the league to consolidate our position at the top.
"It is about revenge for them but hopefully we'll have the character to come back from two defeats and go and win it.
"The players haven't felt pressure from the fans, management or board – it's more from a players' point of view.
"We are frustrated we are not playing well consistently.
"We did that last season. But Saturday was our first defeat in 16 games and that would be championship-winning form for any team."
Heatley craving a happy ending
All the players in tonight's Wasp Solutions League Cup final will be looking to make a big impact, but no-one more so than Paul Heatley.
The tricky winger endured the worst moment in his football career during last year's decider – his second half dismissal contributed to Cliftonville closing out the game comfortable 4-0 winners.
The embarrassment and pain was acute in the Crues dressing room at Windsor Park but Heatley's hangover lingered the longest.
One year ago he trudged off the Windsor Park pitch with his head bowed feeling nothing but shame.
With the Reds 2-0 in front by the 50th minute, the game was slipping away from the Hatchetmen and their fate was sealed when Heatley produced a rash tackle from behind on George McMullan.
It was Heatley's first senior final since joining from Carrick Rangers in a two-year deal in June 2012, and for all the wrong reasons, it will be one he'll never forget.
When the two sides meet again one year on at Solitude, Heatley will have the opportunity for redemption.
All the Crusaders players tasted despair against their neighbours a year ago but Heatley embarked on a personal mission to pay back the fans and his team-mates who he let down.
This season he has done just that as opponents single him out as the Crues' dangerman.
"I can only speak for myself and what happened last year really did affect me," said Heatley.
"Being sent off in a cup final was the worst experience of my life in football. I've been thinking about it a lot over the last few weeks and I will use it as a motivational tool for me going into this game.
"I certainly don't want a repeat of that and I know the players will be hungry to avoid what happened last year. It's about putting things right and responding in the right way.
"Players remember bad moments and on a personal level, I'm sure they will have their own motivation. Although we are playing at Cliftonville's home ground, we are full of confidence and I've been happy with the way I have been performing."
Heatley knows Cliftonville have the firepower to blow the Crues away – Joe Gormley (2), Diarmuid O'Carroll and Ryan Catney were on target at Windsor in last year's showpiece.
However, he has backed his backline to stand tall at Solitude.
"We've had the best and most consistent defence in the league and that has been a big feature of our long unbeaten run," he added.
"We haven't had many injuries which has helped us but everyone has a good understanding of each other's game and although Joe Gormley and Liam Boyce are formidable strikers we have quality throughout our team as well."
Leeman dreaming of more celebrations
By Stuart McKinley
It's been a big week of birthdays in the Leeman household – and now for Crusaders defender Paul it's time to put the icing on the cake.
The Seaview star was 36 on Tuesday and yesterday son Zach blew out his candles as he turned seven.
The biggest celebrations will be reserved for this evening though if daddy can come home with another League Cup medal around his neck – the seventh of his career.
Five of those were won with Glentoran, with four league titles and four Irish Cups among 22 medals Leeman won during 14 years in the Oval first team.
The silverware collection has continued since moving to the Crues in the summer of 2011 and this evening's League Cup decider will be his fifth final with the club – there is at least one more to come this season too, against Linfield in the County Antrim Shield in March.
"I never feared that my days of playing in finals and winning medals were over when I left Glentoran," said Leeman.
"I had options and I felt that Crusaders was the best option given the players, the squad and the manager they had – and thankfully I made the right choice.
"I've played in a few finals, winning the League Cup and the Setanta Cup in my first season and losing the Irish Cup final as well as challenging in the league too.
"I don't think we're just a cup team though. We ran Linfield quite close a couple of years ago and were second last season – although we weren't really that close to Cliftonville."
The Crues are eight points behind Linfield this time, with one more match played than the Blues and he is hoping cup success will lead to a late run that will put maximum pressure on the Windsor Park men at the top.
"It would be great to win the cup because it would lift everyone at the club and give the players confidence," said Leeman.
"We're a bit behind in the league, but we won't be giving up. We have the best defensive record in the league, we have only lost once in 24 games and we won't give up."