Premiership is progressing as predicted except one dark horse, says Crusaders boss
Today's clash between Crusaders and Coleraine may be a battle of the top two, but Stephen Baxter is keeping a careful eye on the team leading the chase on his and Oran Kearney's men.
Cliftonville have been making good progress in Paddy McLaughin's first full season in charge, sitting pretty in the league and having accounted for Linfield in the Co Antrim Shield on Tuesday evening.
So with the first round of fixtures under their belt, Baxter admits there haven't been many surprises thus far but that their derby foes are the 'dark horses' in the race for the Gibson Cup.
"Everything that's been talked about in the media (has happened). Larne coming in, the improvement at Glentoran, Coleraine are very strong again with some good signings and Oran's influence, and Linfield are superb," said Baxter.
"Ballymena will emerge again to be the real top team they were last year but Cliftonville are the dark horses, they are a top side.
"You've got six or seven teams who are very good, all very capable of beating each other, and then you've got five teams who, on their day, are capable of beating you, so you have to be aware of the challenges you will face.
"There's no great surprises in there, the league is shaping up into the shape it is. We're through one round, we play them in thirds and you wait for the split, so we'll see where we're at.
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"We've had Coleraine, Ballymena and Cliftonville all away from home, so those three are three of the top teams and we're reasonably pleased with what we've done to date, and it will be a really interesting league I think."
The key to regaining their crown from Linfield could well be home form, and Crues captain Colin Coates is keen to gain revenge for the 4-2 thumping they were handed by the Bannsiders on their travels.
It has been a disappointing week for the Hatchetmen, held to a draw at Ballymena in the league and then exiting the Shield on penalties to the same opponents in midweek.
"Draws are okay if you can go and back them up with a win, it's not the end of the world," said Coates after that league draw.
"We knew it was going to be tough, you never get an easy game up there and big Davy (Jeffrey) always has them fired up to go out and compete.
"We were disappointed. When you take the lead in the second half, you hope to go on and see it out, but we lost our way a wee bit after we scored.
"We haven't got a good record up at the Showgrounds and hopefully we can put up a better show than we did there, because we gave away soft goals that day, and we'll be looking to bounce back."