Belfast Telegraph

Oval trip the ideal chance to strike back: Stafford

By Alex Mills

Mark Stafford insists motivation will not be an issue when Linfield make the trip across town to face Big Two rivals Glentoran at The Oval tomorrow.

David Healy's boys almost certainly kissed goodbye to any lingering hopes of pinching the Danske Bank Premiership title from under the nose of Crusaders after a 1-1 draw with basement side Portadown last week.

It means that the Blues approach the final nine games of the campaign a staggering NINE points adrift of the champions. Stafford, however, prefers to put a positive spin on his team's challenge by stating the Big Two shoot-out comes at precisely the right time.

"We'll not require any lifting for this match," said the centre-back. "We were all disappointed with the result last week - it was Coleraine all over again.

"It's difficult to put your finger on what went wrong. I certainly don't want to be disrespectful to Portadown. They came with a game plan and stuck to it. They caused us problems in the centre of the pitch, so fair play to them.

"We must now pick ourselves up - that game is gone. We also know we have to be on the ball at The Oval. Glentoran may not be having the best of seasons, but they have very capable players.

"In Curtis Allen, they have one of the best strikers in the league. He only needs half a chance and he'll punish you, so we must be on our game."

Blues boss David Healy admitted Linfield's first title success in five years may now be a bridge too far, but Stafford believes while it's still mathematically possible, it's worth fighting for.

"There are still plenty of games left and anything can happen when the league splits," said Stafford. "Yes, it's a long way back for us. Crusaders are at the top of the league for a reason.

"They know how to grind out results. They are a good side and know how to get the job done.

"We seem to go off on an unbeaten run and then there is a Coleraine, a Dungannon or a Portadown around the corner. Results like that cost you crucial points. They are all points dropped at home which makes it even more frustrating."

Although the odds are now stacked heavily against Linfield in the title race, they still have an Irish Cup quarter-final against Crusaders looming - a match that Healy branded "the biggest game of the season" for his team.

Stafford added: "That is now massive as far as we are concerned. And that's a sad thing to say considering we are still only at the end of February.

"But that game will look after itself. We can't look any further than this week. If we think any differently we could end up with egg on our faces."

• Ballymena United skipper Jim Ervin has agreed a one-year extension to his contract.

Sky Blues boss David Jeffrey said: "Myself and Bryan McLoughlin believe that he is playing some of the best football of his career and he is exemplary both on and off the pitch."

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