As the 2017/18 seasons ambles into the final straight we take a look at how things stand ahead of the first post-split fixtures in the Danske Bank Premiership on Easter Tuesday, 3rd April 2018.
Ballymena United secured their place in the top half of the league split with their 2-0 victory over Ballinamallard on Monday night. This minimum 6th place finish, and a spot in the European play-off, is a welcome boost for David Jeffrey’s side. Ballymena kick off their final run of games by hosting Cliftonville at the Ballymena Showgrounds.
Cliftonville may well still maintain an eye on Linfield in the league, just 2 points above them, but their immediate focus will certainly be on an Irish Cup semi-final against Loughgall tomorrow. The Reds would be delighted to make the final and not only give themselves a double chance at European qualification but also a shot at securing their first Irish Cup win since 1979.
This has been a most disappointing season by Linfield’s usual standards with 2nd place entirely out of their reach. A win over Glenavon on Tuesday would certainly give them a boost as they look to overtake their Lurgan Blues rivals and claim 3rd place in the league. A season without European football for Linfield would almost certainly be considered sacrilege by their fans.
Glenavon may well have fallen out of the title race but still command that 3rd place spot which could become significant should Coleraine win the Irish Cup. Gary Hamilton’s team have not only impressed domestically but also on the international stage with Mark Sykes and Bobby Burns among the NI U21 squad for the recent fixtures against Spain and Iceland.
Coleraine may have surrendered their lead at the top of the table but Oran Kearney’s boys will still feel confident for the final five games of this league season. Firstly, they have the not-so-insignificant-task of overcoming Larne in the semi-final of the Irish Cup on Saturday to set up a second successive Irish Cup final appearance. Then on Tuesday the Bannsiders will travel to Seaview for a 1st v 2nd fixture against Crusaders.
Crusaders appear to have shaken off any mid-season lag that was beginning to appear and will be keen to make amends for giving up the title last season when it was all but in their grasp at one point. With significant prize money and a second life in Europe at stake, the Crues cannot afford to let slip now – next season the winners of the Danske Bank Premiership will enter the first qualifying round of the Champions League, should they lose in that tie they will then drop down to the second qualifying round of the Europa League.
Another disappointing season at The Oval has led to the dismissal of manager Gary Haveron. Ronnie McFall returned to the hotseat but despite a promising start was unable to secure a top half finish for the East Belfast club. With a 10 point advantage on Dungannon in 8th, Glentoran should feel confident of securing 7th place and a spot in the European play-off barring any total end of season collapse.
The Swifts have that 10 point deficit from Glentoran but do maintain a game in hand, to be played tomorrow against Warrenpoint. Reducing the points gap to 7 still leaves Dungannon with a significant battle to overcome the Glens but will certainly give them the confidence to give it a go.
Ards are now securely in that middle ground – safe from the prospect of relegation yet far enough from European contention to be excited. A second successive 8th place finish should leave manager Colin Nixon content enough with this season, giving them a platform to build and improve for the coming year. Ards will host Warrenpoint Town on Easter Tuesday.
Warrenpoint’s season could yet go either way, just 7 points from a possible relegation play off, yet only 9 points behind Ards but with a game to play tomorrow. With only 6 wins from 32 matches so for this season, can the Point go on to secure their Premiership status and even catch Ards above them? It would certainly help to ease the pain of losing manager Matthew Tipton to Portadown.
Carrick Rangers have struggled to find their feet at all this season, there have been times when they look to have turned a corner only to find themselves back in a slump. 17 points from 33 games will be a sore point for manager David McAlinden, is a 7 point gap (potentially 10 by Saturday evening) to Warrenpoint a bridge too far for the Amber Army? With only 5 points separating them from the drop, they will have to be on guard to secure their top flight status. Rangers will travel to basement club Ballinamallard United on Easter Tuesday.
Ballinamallard have been stuck to the root of the table for much of this season, their total goals conceded of 84 in 33 games tells a story in itself. A trip to Carrick on Tuesday will be a vital point in their last gasp attempt at escaping immediate relegation.