Belfast Telegraph

Stafford is urging Linfield to strike as title race ramps up

By Adrian Rutherford

Mark Stafford believes the next six weeks will show which teams have the bottle for a title challenge in the Danske Bank Premiership.

The Linfield defender expects the packed mid-winter schedule to separate the real contenders from the also-rans.

Stafford reckons at least four teams are currently in the running, including Cliftonville, who visit Windsor Park this afternoon.

But he believes the punishing run of games leading up to Christmas and into the new year will give a truer insight into who can last the pace.

And, with that in mind, Stafford says it is vital that Linfield maintain their impressive form of recent weeks.

“You want to be carrying momentum into the Christmas period because then you’re coming into January and the league starts to settle down, and teams drop out and other teams push on,” he said.

“We want to make sure we’re in the mix come Christmas, that we have a good Christmas period and then push on into the new year.”

Linfield host the Reds this afternoon in the standout match from the weekend fixture list.

The Blues are four points off top spot, with Gerard Lyttle’s side a further four points back in the table. Yet Stafford believes they cannot be discounted from the title race.

“Cliftonville have so much talent — my old Ballinamallard United team-mate Chris Curran is one — and you see the players they have up front and in midfield,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to be too far away.

“You look at their form at home and they are a very, very good side. They have good players, a lot of talent in their squad, and I can’t see any reason why they won’t be up around the top of the table.”

While Crusaders sit top for now, Stafford believes a lot can change quickly — especially approaching the busy festive programme.  

“We are only in November and nothing is handed out until May, so there is a lot of football still to be played,” he continued.

“I’m sure there will be points dropped by all teams in the league between now and the end of the season. We just want to make sure that we do our job as best as we can in every game.”

Linfield haven’t lost since a 2-1 defeat at Cliftonville back in October. They won when the sides met in the Co Antrim Shield three weeks ago, and have scored eight goals in their last two games. It is such a contrast to last November, when a run of four defeats did lasting damage to their title hopes. Stafford believes the Blues are a team transformed from a year ago.

“I think the squad as a whole is in a totally different place compared to where we were last season,” he added.

“I’ve said this before, and I don’t think people have totally bought into it or believed it, but I can tell you that we are a totally different squad from this time last year.

“We’re a lot stronger, we’re a far better side and a far better squad. We’ve got good players but I think this time around we are more of a unit than we ever were.”

Linfield boss David Healy has been impressed with his side’s recent form.

Although wary of the threat Cliftonville carry, he believes they can approach this afternoon’s match with bags of confidence.

“We’ve got a fully fit squad and the good thing for me is that it’s hard to choose a team at the minute, which is a good thing for me as a manager,” Healy said.

“Cliftonville are a good side, they’ve got good players going forward.

“They have players who can hurt you, so we need to be wary of that.

“But we’re in good form ourselves and it’s a game we should be looking forward to.”

Fixtures to come

Today (3pm): Ballymena United v Dungannon Swifts, Carrick Rangers v Portadown, Coleraine v Ballinamallard United, Crusaders v Ards, Glenavon v Glentoran, Linfield v Cliftonville.

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