Winter games may prove to be pivotal in glory hunt, says Ward
Crusaders ace Sean Ward has admitted the festive fixtures will have a "big say" in where the Gibson Cup ends up in May.
As five clubs are going into the packed Christmas programme with title-winning aspirations, the next few weeks will determine who falls away and who can send out a powerful statement of intent.
A disappointing winter will not necessarily mean a title challenge is over as Linfield's incredible run from last January proved, but with so many strong teams in menacing form no one wants to be playing catch-up.
The Crues have a very tough afternoon ahead at Mourneview Park today even if the hosts are without Andrew Doyle as well as the suspended Mark Sykes.
A win would leave Gary Hamilton's side level on points with the Crues but Ward believes the Hatchetmen have the squad to maintain their sprint to the title.
"These winter games will certainly have a big say in who wins the title," said the former Linfield and Glentoran favourite. "If one team can break away from the rest or hurt their rivals then it will be a massive confidence boost going into January.
"Come next month each team will re-evaluate their goals and I don't expect anything to change from our perspective - we want to win the title and we believe we can. We have the squad to do it but there are another four teams saying the same thing and it will be interesting to see how the chasing pack do.
"Glenavon have a strong squad with plenty of match winners and they beat us at Seaview earleir in the season so we know how tough a challenge it is going to be."
If the Crues taste defeat in Lurgan, league leaders Coleraine could go nine points clear if they win at the home of basement boys Ballinamalard United.
"Coleraine deserve credit but their form is not a huge deal because if you take away the Irish Cup Final, the team was winning games and the younger players were gaining more belief," added Ward.
"People expect them to slow down but after they lost to Linfield they picked themselves up again and beat Ards 4-1. That's the sign of a good team, getting back on track quickly and they are in a rich vein of form but we are confident we can catch them and that's what we aim to do."