Comment: Where will Saturday's top clash between Coleraine and Crusaders be won and lost?
Far be it from me to reach out for a cliché, but Crusaders' trip to Coleraine this Saturday is a title-deciding six-pointer, with the winners due to be over the moon and the losers as sick as parrots. Yes, it is that important.
Something has to give between the top two, who, in their three games against each other thus far this season, have a win apiece and drew last time out at the Showgrounds back in November.
Howard Beverland, a man who dreamt of scoring a title-deciding goal at Ballycastle Road, may have done just that back on that day, his late equaliser for the Crues taking them within six points of his boyhood idols.
Fast forward six weeks and how things have changed. The Crusaders juggernaut shows absolutely no signs of slowing down, while the Bannsiders' bandwagon has missed a couple of gears of late with the upshot being that, going into this weekend's clash, Stephen Baxter's men are a point ahead and have a vastly superior goal difference.
It is set up perfectly to be one of the seismic clashes of the season, the most potent attack against the meanest defence in the land and two teams who have incredibly lost only three games between them all season in the league.
So, where will the game be won and lost, who will be the heroes or villains, and who, at the end of the day, after a game of two halves, will have given 110 per cent and will prove that you can't win the title in January but you can lose it?
Defence: And they say Ballymena men are tight? They have nothing on their parochial neighbours who have conceded just 16 goals in 24 league games this season. In fact, in their last six Danske Bank Premiership outings they have allowed just one goal, and that was against the Sky Blues on Boxing Day. Oh, and they kept a clean sheet against Lisburn Distillery in the Tennent's Irish Cup too.
As for Crusaders, well, they hardly hand out goals like sweets to a greedy child either. They've allowed 23, the second meanest tally, and with Sean O'Neill back between the posts they have a calm and sensible head directing things.
Okay, I may have made that last bit up, but his return, despite the excellence of Brian Jensen in his absence, is crucial for the Crues.
Keeping Colin Coates fit and on the pitch will also be key, while Beverland's return to his form of last season has been a major reason why the Crues haven't lost a match in any competition since October.
Attack: Crusaders are scoring goals for fun, and from all areas of the pitch, Gavin Whyte and Paul Heatley already in double figures and the Jordans, Owens and Forsythe, knocking in their fair share too. They are an irresistible force going forward and can mix it up - when the twinkle-toed terrors aren't firing, then the howitzer to the big man up front is a great Plan B. That may be needed on what is likely to be a pitch more reminiscent of a sticky toffee pudding than the lush plastic of Seaview.
The Bannsiders have been more frugal on the scoring front, hence their desire to enlist the services of someone like Darren Murray to take the pressure off Jamie McGonigle. Darren McCauley has weighed in with some crucial strikes, and indeed is two ahead of his strike partner in the standings, but still remains frustratingly hot and cold. Eoin Bradley's return will also help take off some of the pressure.
Squad: "I said as part of the team talk that I don't think in the seven years that I've been here we've had such a strong bench," said Oran Kearney on Saturday, and it's hard to argue. Ian Parkhill, McCauley and Bradley all came on, while David Ogilby and Scot Whiteside weren't called into action. Gareth McConaghie and Martin Smith weren't in the squad and Lyndon Kane made his comeback for the reserves, so there is plenty in the tank for the Bannsiders.
But if it is a squad you want then Crusaders are quite simply that chubby child we mentioned earlier who found the keys to the sweetie shop. Sean Ward, Jonny Bonner, Jamie Glackin, Matthew Snoddy and Jensen couldn't make the starting XI on Saturday when they would stroll into any other team in the league. And then there's the likes of Rodney Brown, Craig McClean, Michael Carvill…
Momentum: As I mentioned earlier, the Crues have been sensational, and you have to say if they win on Saturday it would be very hard to see Coleraine keeping up with them. A win for Coleraine could re-ignite their season, which, if it hasn't gone off the boil, has certainly been turned down a gas mark or two of late.
Attitude: Hard to argue that either side edges this one with both displaying admirable thran-ness in their refusal to surrender any territory. Late winners for both sides last Saturday maintained the status quo as the title challengers found that lesser lights aren't just going to roll over and have their bellies tickled.
That never-say-die attitude will hold them both in good stead over the months ahead.
Verdict: Now then. For me it is a game Stephen Baxter would gladly take a point from and move on, while for Coleraine they desperately need a win. They have the Glens, Linfield and Glenavon up next in the league and all three of those have the potential to be banana skins. For that reason I think they will edge it, so congratulations to Crusaders then!
Blame game is no match for the real thing
Another week and another row brewing as the ridiculously late calling off of Linfield’s trip to Warrenpoint Town has the Blues seeing red yet again at the NIFL.
It’s not the first time that the co-habiting duo at Windsor Park haven’t seen eye to eye this season, and it’s hard not to have sympathy for Linfield when they arrived at the ground at 1.20pm to find the referee swimming around the pitch doing his inspection.
There has been a fair bit of ‘he said, she said’ in the aftermath, fingers being pointed in all roads and directions, but, and maybe I’m wrong, surely it doesn’t take the referee to traipse the length of the country to inspect the pitch?
I’m sure it used to be that a local ref of a decent standard would pop along and point out the bleedin’ obvious that when there’s a mermaid sitting on the penalty spot then perhaps we should call things off.
What’s in a name? Well, some cash hopefully...
And so we take another step towards selling our soul to the forces of darkness. Okay, maybe that’s a tad harsh on Q Radio, but yet another club has changed the moniker of their ground by selling naming rights.
Hard to blame clubs, I suppose, in these difficult times, if it’s good enough for the likes of Arsenal, Man City and Ulster then why shouldn’t Warrenpoint, who did so well at Milltown, now trot out at the Q Radio Arena?
We already have the Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena and the Bangor Fuels Arena, or Taylors Avenue and Clandeboye Park in old money, and you wonder who will be next to jump on the bandwagon?
I pray for the day that Glenavon run out at the Buckfast Arena.
Mad Mac on road to fury
There's an old saying that ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps’ and it could have been penned for Carrick Rangers boss Davy McAlinden.
In fairness, his descent into yanking of follicles and gnashing of teeth has not been self-inflicted but brought upon by his team, who fell to a 15th game without a win against Ballymena on Saturday.
“They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So we will be doing things differently,” he warned.
The mantra is ‘don’t get mad, get even’. At least a point would be better than what they have been getting.
BILLY TACKLES... JAMES KNOWLES
A massive thank you to Glentoran midfield maestro James Knowles for his late goal at Ballinamallard on Saturday that not only rescued a point for his team but much more importantly earned me a win in the predictions.
I was drawing with Warrenpoint Town striker Darren Murray right up until the last-gasp equaliser. It earned me a 5-3 win where I picked out all five of the correct outcomes to the matches.
Clearly I am back on form and so, who better then than against my saviour himself, Mr Knowles, to try and continue that run this week?
The usual rules apply, three points for an exact scoreline and one point for the correct outcome.
Coleraine v Crusaders: Saturday (3.00pm)
Coleraine have been flying with their great start, while it took Crusaders a while to get going, and I’m not sure what their run is at the minute but I would put them down to be favourites to win the league. They have massive players, love the big games and I really fancy Crusaders to go there and beat them.
Knowles prediction: 1-2
Weir prediction: 2-1
Linfield v Glenavon: Saturday (3.00pm)
Both teams are hard to predict at the minute, Glenavon can go and win six or get beaten, you don’t really know. Linfield have been struggling of late as well, and I think they will come onto a strong run, but I really fancy a draw.
Knowles prediction: 2-2
Weir prediction: 1-2
Cliftonville v Dungannon Swifts: Saturday (3.00pm)
I think Glenavon put Cliftonville under a lot of pressure last week, and they haven’t had great results recently, but I think they will be too strong for Dungannon, who aren’t scoring a lot of goals.
Knowles prediction: 3-0
Weir prediction: 2-0
Warrenpoint Tn v Ballinamallard Utd: Saturday (3.00pm)
I was quite impressed by Ballinamallard last week. They had six new players in their line-up and they’re stronger than they were, and I really fancy them in this one. I think it will be close because, although I’m going for Ballinamallard, Warrenpoint are very good. They keep the ball unbelievably well, which is a credit to Tippy.
Knowles prediction: 1-2
Weir prediction: 2-2
Ards v Ballymena Utd: Saturday (3.00pm)
I think this one is going to be close. Ards played Crusaders last week and didn’t concede until the last minute, and I think this one is going to be similar.
Knowles prediction: 0-1
Weir prediction: 2-2
Season’s standings: Players 10 Weir 6