Coleraine are a major threat to our crown, says Stafford
Linfield defender Mark Stafford believes Coleraine have to be considered serious title contenders this season.
The Blues head to the Coleraine Showgrounds tomorrow hoping to end the Bannsiders' stunning unbeaten record as Oran Kearney's high-flying side have only dropped points in one of their nine Premiership outings - a scoreless draw at Glentoran in September.
A victory over Linfield would lift Coleraine seven points ahead of the Blues in the title race and, while it's still early in the campaign, it would be a huge statement of intent from the north-west side.
The Bannsiders are brimming with confidence and their younger aces are maturing into even more dangerous players as the season unfolds, but David Healy's side remain the champions and well equipped to finish top of the pile again.
Linfield know what it takes to taste title glory, but the threat posed by Coleraine is real and a win over the Blues would lift confidence and expectation levels to new heights.
Stafford and his team-mates will relish the opportunity to slam the brakes on the Bannsiders' charge and, if they can succeed, then the focus will switch to the character of Kearney's men and how they will react to their first loss.
But this is certainly a huge moment in the season for Healy's side with a televised clash with Crusaders following the tasty tussle with Coleraine.
"It's still too early to be looking at the table and talking about defining periods but there's no question these are two big games of football," said former Ballinamallard United ace Stafford.
"Coleraine and Crusaders are challenging at the top of the table and you always want to beat your title rivals. They are close games, and Coleraine postponed their game with Ballinamallard because of international commitments so they will be fresh and ready.
"What we want to do is produce a good team performance at Coleraine and close the gap on them. They have been going well and scoring. The interesting thing is they haven't conceded a lot of goals either and that's always important.
"Darren McCauley has been flying for them but they have a goal threat from all over. Strong at the back and a real threat going forward, you have to say they are capable of winning the title if they can maintain that form. They are top on merit and they have challenged the rest of the league to catch them."
Linfield have been sensational at times this season but also sloppy in front of goal, however that's not surprising with Paul Smyth leaving for Queens Park Rangers and Andy Waterworth in the treatment room for 12 weeks.
Healy, though, will be disappointed with the four-point gap separating them and Coleraine, and defeat tomorrow is not really an option.
The Blues lost to Crusaders at Seaview and they will not want to slip up against another title rival this weekend. If they do, there will be significant pressure on the Windsor Park side to deliver against the Crues in the next big test.
"The defeat at Crusaders was disappointing, but they scored two wonderful goals from Paul Heatley and Jordan Forsythe," said Stafford. "We didn't play well in the first half but were more like ourselves in the second. We will look to get a better result against them at Windsor.
"What happened at Cliftonville was also very disappointing as when you are 2-0 up with just over 10 minutes to go we should be absorbing the pressure and seeing the job through. Cliftonville put us under a lot of pressure and took their goals well. They were rewarded for their strong finish."
The good news for Linfield is that Waterworth is back leading the attack and he remains a key piece of any title-winning jigsaw at Windsor.
"It's great to see Andy back," added Stafford. "His fitness and return is a boost on and off the pitch. He's a big character in the dressing room and a huge influence on the pitch. Andy is feared by teams because of his goalscoring record."
Danske Bank Premiership:
Coleraine Showgrounds, Tomorrow, 3pm