Belfast Telegraph

We owe them one: Linfield's Joel Cooper keen to set down a marker against title rivals Ballymena United

Ballymena Utd v Linfield, Co Antrim Shield Semi-Final, Ballymena Showgrounds, Tonight, 7.45pm

Blue boys: Joel Cooper and manager David Healy
Blue boys: Joel Cooper and manager David Healy

By Alex Mills

Influential midfielder Joel Cooper believes Linfield can set down a marker in tonight's County Antrim Shield semi-final showdown with Ballymena United at the Showgrounds.

David Healy's boys approach the tie in the best possible shape, unbeaten since December 1 - when they lost to the Sky Blues - and not having conceded a goal in their last six outings.

United bounced back from their first defeat in 20 games -they were edged out by Crusaders in a thriller at Seaview - by claiming their place in the sixth round of the Irish Cup at the expense of Dundela on Saturday.

Linfield and Ballymena are now the only clubs that can potentially achieve a clean sweep of domestic trophies - so Warden Street will be no place for the faint-hearted tonight.

The 23-year-old Cooper, who brought his goal tally to eight for the season by grabbing the winner against his former club Ballyclare Comrades in a tense Irish Cup tie at the weekend, insists his team are ready for another war of attrition in a game that has previously been postponed twice because of a flooded pitch.

"It's a big one for both teams, it could well be one of those games that sets down a marker for the rest of the season," said Cooper. "It's been postponed a couple of times, but it's the one we've been looking forward to."

It is honours even so far between the sides, with the Blues claiming a 2-1 league win at Windsor Park back in September, while David Jeffrey's team reaped a little revenge the last time the sides met.

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"We owe them one from the last time we went up there," said Cooper.

"Games have been pretty close. I thought we were the better side when we beat them at Windsor.

"Then, up at their place on the smaller pitch, we could well have got a draw. They probably thought they deserved to win it, but it was tight. We are expecting something similar this time.

"Ballymena are a really good side, they are flying at the minute. They have good players. We'll have to be in top form to get anything from it."

The clubs have a date in the League Cup final on February 16 to negotiate, while they are battling it out at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership table, so something must give tonight.

Cooper believes the Blues' mental strength will be pivotal in their push for trophies.

"At the start of the season, we would have taken the position we are currently in had it been offered to us," he said. "Our back four have been really solid. Even though there were a few changes for the Ballyclare game at the weekend, we still kept a clean sheet - that's now six in a row.

"That gives us, the boys up front, the licence to go and express ourselves and freedom to score goals. We are happy with the way things are going.

"We've a great squad with plenty of boys ready to come into the side. Ballymena are an attacking side and so are we. It should be a cracking game.

"The expectation levels at Linfield are massive. You are expected to win every game, but it's a pressure we all relish. The players have their own expectations, so it's up to us to maintain those standards."

Although the Blues were not at their best at the weekend, Cooper insists credit must go to the Comrades for putting up stubborn defensive resistance in their losing effort.

"It's always difficult in the Irish Cup, especially against a Championship side," he added. "We can always look back and say we did enough to get through.

"Perhaps our attitude wasn't just what it should have been. It was a flat performance, but we got through, that was our aim. Fair play to Ballyclare, they made it so difficult for us."

Linfield manager Healy insists he will reshuffle his pack for the game.

He admitted: "We'll make changes to freshen things up. It's a big game for us to look forward to.

"They (Ballymena) are a good side and they are in good form.

"It should be another cagey tie. I don't think we deserved to lose up there last month.

"David (Jeffrey) obviously felt they were the superior team, but I didn't think that was the case. But this is one we will all relish."

Meanwhile, NIFL has announced new dates for a number of Premiership fixtures over the coming weeks.

The clash between Newry City and Warrenpoint Town has returned to the original date of Saturday, January 26 (3pm).


Tuesday, January 22 (7.45pm): Newry City v Linfield; Ballymena United v Institute

Friday, February 1 (7.45pm): Newry City v Glentoran

Tuesday, February 5 (7.45pm): Glenavon v Cliftonville; Dungannon Swifts v Coleraine

Tuesday, February 26 (7.45pm): Glentoran v Warrenpoint Town; Ballymena United v Cliftonville; Newry City v Linfield.

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