The Premiership is wide open this season, says Linfield boss David Healy
Linfield manager David Healy is convinced the league title race and crunch games between the top teams will be decided by the smallest margins this season.
Last term, Linfield and Ballymena United went toe-to-toe in the battle for the Gibson Cup, with Healy's side eventually coming out on top.
Right now, they find themselves in fourth and sixth positions respectively. Both have played fewer games than the sides above them but, even allowing for that, Healy and Ballymena boss David Jeffrey won't want to lose any more ground.
Linfield are eight points behind leaders Crusaders with Ballymena a further two adrift. Coleraine and Cliftonville are in second and third.
"The title is wide open this season. Crusaders are ahead at the moment but there are a lot of games coming up and a lot of points to be played for," said Healy, who has guided Linfield to two Championships in three seasons.
"I don't think there is that much between teams at the top. It may take a wonder goal, a mistake or a strange decision by an official to decide the top games because there's not much between them."
On this afternoon's fixture, Healy said: "It's a tough game and a big game. David Jeffrey is a legend at Linfield and always will be. The job that he has done at Ballymena United in the time he has been there has been exceptional. When I first took over at Linfield, Ballymena were in around the middle six and competing for cup competitions, so credit to David and the Ballymena players for what they have achieved in recent years.
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"They ran us really close last season in the league and we beat them in the League Cup final, a competition they have had success in, so we know how good and big and strong they are.
"They have good players and honest players. The way David and Brian (McLoughlin) and their staff have them playing they are a real threat going forward, and they have experienced players at the back like Jim Ervin, who seems as if he has been around for 20 years.
"He leads their team well and they have experienced midfielders who can score goals. I'm sure it will be all guns blazing from both sides. People who pay their money to watch Irish League football want to be entertained and I'm sure they will be on Saturday."
Asked to expand on his thoughts on Jeffrey, Healy was hugely complimentary of the former Linfield manager, who won an astonishing 31 trophies during 17 years in charge at Windsor Park. Before that, he was a popular captain with the Blues.
Healy is a hero to many in Northern Ireland for his iconic goals at international level. Ahead of their meeting, he revealed Jeffrey is one of his.
"I've supported Linfield all my life and for most of my adult life Davy was the manager at Linfield. Davy was my hero," said Northern Ireland's record goalscorer.
"I have huge admiration for him, and to go head-to-head with an Irish League legend, that's what a young, inexperienced manager like me wants to do. I thrive on that.
"You want to test yourself against the best people and there is no bigger character and more successful manager in the league at the moment than Davy."
Healy will have Shayne Lavery back from international duty and possibly Bastien Hery returning from injury.
He is hoping other sidelined stars like Daniel Kearns, Jordan Stewart, Chris Casement, Josh Robinson and Mark Haughey will be back soon.
The Blues lost on penalties at home to Cliftonville in the County Antrim Shield in midweek, while Ballymena won a spot-kick battle with Crusaders in the same competition. Healy was disappointed but not devastated. He views today's game as much more important.