Crusaders have the self-belief to push Linfield and Glentoran all the way in the title race.
That’s the view of Seaview skipper Colin Coates who says the revitalised Shore Road men are going from strength to strength.
In previous seasons a Crues team that was trailing 2-0 to Linfield would have perhaps leaked further goals in the closing stages of a contest but Tuesday’s spirited fightback in the County Antrim Shield semi-final offered further evidence that this is a very different crop of Hatchetmen.
And if the Blues are held to a draw against Glentoran at the Oval tomorrow afternoon, Stephen Baxter’s side will be alongside the champions as joint leaders.
Some teams may struggle to recover from the heartbreak of a penalty shoot-out defeat — particularly when there is a feeling that Linfield could have been beaten on the night - but confidence has not been dented in the Crues camp.
Cliftonville will make the short journey to Seaview tomorrow with their tails up after Wednesday’s Shield semi-final victory over the Glens but Coates, who is monitoring a slight hamstring injury ahead of the derby clash, expects his side to return to winning ways at the earliest opportunity.
“It was a weird feeling after the Linfield game because on the one hand an opportunity to make a final had been lost but we can also be proud of the way we played and with a little luck and more decisions going our way we would have won it,” he said.
“But I have been at the Crues since I was 17 and this is by some distance the best squad of players we have had and we are getting better.
“As disappointing as it was to lose to Linfield twice there is a huge amount of confidence and self-belief in the team. We know we are playing well and we know we can beat teams like Linfield and the Glens.
“At the start of the season we might have been aiming for a top six place and that still has to be our goal but if we can maintain and even improve our form then a top four finish is possible and if you are there or thereabouts at the top of the table then who knows where we will finish?
“It’s a long season but it is a huge honour for me to be the captain of Crusaders and I am confident the team will get even better. The league remains the bread and butter for all the clubs and it is nice to see teams like ourselves, Cliftonville and Lisburn Distillery grab some of the spotlight normally taken by Linfield and the Glens.”
Baxter said his team contributed to an "exhibition of football" on Tuesday and he would settle for a similar performance against the Reds — though he would like to see a little more clinical finishing from the penalty spot after his side missed all three of their spot-kicks in the shootout.
But the never say die attitude of the Crues players will live long in the memory of the fans who witnessed the thriller.
Over the last few seasons Cliftonville have inflicted a few wounds on their neighbours — particularly on Boxing Day when former Crues defender David McAlinden has haunted his former club but the big defender could miss this particular reunion through injury.
However, Crusaders triumphed in the last meeting between the rivals when Darren Lockhart scored the winner at Solitude at the end of last season.
“They have had an indifferent season so far but we know they will be very tough opponents,” added Coates.
“Both teams will be confident of getting a result but over the last five years or so they have had the upper hand.
“There is also a massive incentive for us to get the three points while the Blues and Glens meet at the Oval. This league isn’t just about the Big Two and there will be very good football played at Seaview tomorrow between two very good sides.”