It looks a three-way battle for the Danske Bank Premiership title after the latest weekend’s series of results.
Linfield, Glentoran and Cliftonville have broken away, although the other Belfast club, Crusaders, would remain clutching onto their coat-tails by winning their game in hand.
But despite the main provincial challenge fading, another intriguing programme awaits fans this Tuesday night. And things could again tighten up at the top.
Cliftonville, whose determination and collectiveness continue to see them punch above their weight could upset Linfield who travel to Solitude. The Blues, only a solitary league defeat this season and still dependent on Christy Manzinga to carry goal threat, look light up front, but there’s not a better team in the Premiership at grinding out results. Chasing a fourth title in a row, they’re still the team to beat.
But a win for Cliftonville would take The Reds within 2 points of the summit. In three meetings this season, there’s never been more than a goal between the teams and I wouldn’t expect that to change, Tuesday evening.
Cliftonville’s home form had been perfect until recent reverses against Crusaders and Glentoran. They were under-par in the north Belfast derby, but probably felt they did enough to share the spoils against an inspired Glens.
It’s Glentoran who appear to be the team with momentum, despite their New Year’s Day defeat to struggling Larne. They have the complexion of a side maturing and growing to the task after two thrilling and spectacular wins in north Belfast last week, each captured by TV.
The Oval men showed at Seaview they can win without Jay Donnelly in the side. It had been a question mark, with even Glenmen asking where they’d be this season without the 26-year-old’s phenomenal goal output. But they found a way, Conor McMenamin’s return to the side providing much of the inspiration.
The troubled autumn period is consigned to history as Glentoran prepare for the visit of a Coleraine side which hopes to rediscover early season form. The Bannsiders’ 3-0 defeat of Carrick at the weekend was their first league victory in over two months, a poor run which saw them hit the net only twice in seven Premiership games.
And therein lies the problem for Oran Kearney’s men. Kearney will be keen to add firepower during this January window to relieve pressure on the side’s most creative component, Jamie Glackin. They still play a neat brand of football but there’s an increasing sense of ‘keep Glackin quiet and you keep Coleraine blank’.
Still, there’s one nut Glentoran have not yet cracked this season and Coleraine, who’ve already left the Belfast venue with a 2-2 draw in October, will take heart.
Victory at home over a top six side has yet to materialize. They may have few peers when it comes to road games, but that draw with Coleraine is the only point collected at home against a side from the top half of the league.
Crusaders, Linfield and Larne have all come to The Oval, scored three times each and left with the points. That needs to change pretty quickly, if not immediately, if Mick McDermott’s men are to retain title aspirations that, to be fair, appear very real.
Elsewhere, Crusaders will be tested at Shamrock Park by manager-less Portadown, each side desperate for points for differing reasons.
Larne should help their’s and Portadown’s cause by defeating basement club, Warrenpoint Town at Milltown. To do so, the Invermen must score their first league goal since New Year’s Day and the arrival of record-signing Lee Bonis, who’ll be keen to do his old club a favour.
Gary Hamilton’s Glenavon welcome Dungannon Swifts, one place behind them in ninth, while resurgent Ballymena United will be looking for a fifth away win of the season at Carrick Rangers, without a win in their last eight at home.
The omens might favour Rangers however. The Braidmen were the last visiting side to lose at Carrick way back during the first weekend of October.