DANSKE BANK PREMIERSHIP: 17 MARCH PREVIEW

The penultimate round of Danske Bank Premiership fixtures before the split takes place this Saturday with all to play for still at both ends of the table.

Ards v Coleraine (venue: Bangor Fuels Arena; kick-off: 3pm)

It’s been a huge week for Oran Kearney’s Bannsiders who chalked up big wins against Ballymena United and Glentoran that keeps them in strong contention for a League and Irish Cup double. Coleraine’s relentless persuit of the Premiership title bore fruit last weekend as Crusaders finally slipped up and their win over rivals Ballymena drew the gap to just two points with seven games to go.

Colin Nixon’s side have all but secured their place in the Danske Bank Premiership for next season, the remainder of the County Down side’s season may well be based around blooding their new crop of exciting young players into the first team for next season – Sam Johnston, Callum Byers, Jonah Mitchell and Josh Kelly all signed new contracts in midweek.

Ballymena United v Warrenpoint Town (venue: Ballymena Showgrounds; kick-off: 3pm)

David Jeffrey’s Ballymena United now see their season resting on the Danske Bank Premiership campaign after their disappointing midweek Irish Cup exit to Championship side Larne in midweek. It marked a fifth defeat in six games since the BetMcLean League Cup final for the Braidmen who are still chasing sixth place but a win is vital against visiting Warrenpoint on Saturday.

The league’s youngest manager Stephen McDonnell finally gets his chance to take to the dugout following the postponement of last week’s clash against Dungannon Swifts. He is tasked with making sure the ‘Point avoid the drop following Matthew Tipton’s departure to Portadown.

Carrick Rangers v Cliftonville (venue: Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena; kick-off: 3pm)

David McAlinden would hope that his Rangers team are now only a couple of wins away from automatic relegation having opened up a seven point gap on Ballinamallard United – but they will come up against a buoyant Cliftonville outfit at the Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena this weekend.

It’s been a fine week at Solitude as their superb ‘derby’ performance against Crusaders last Saturday was backed up with progression to the semi-final of the Irish Cup with Joe Gormley’s goal the deciding factor between Linfield and the Reds on Tuesday evening. Barry Gray will be looking to use this good form to catch the Blues in fourth place, with the added benefit of having beaten Carrick Rangers three times already this season in the three meetings between the sides.

Crusaders v Dungannon Swifts (venue: Seaview; kick-off: 3pm)

Are the nerves starting to show at Seaview?! Their exit from all the cup competitions paved the way for a clear run at bringing the Gibson Cup back to North Belfast but defeat to Cliftonville last week has cut their lead of five points, down to two.

Dungannon Swifts have suffered two defeats in the last three Premiership games since winning the BetMcLean League Cup and will now be without captain Ryan Harpur for three games.

Glenavon v Ballinamallard United (venue: Mourneview Park; kick-off: 3pm)

Harry McConkey returns to the Ballinamallard United dugout this weekend as he tries to plot the ‘Great Escape’ following the departure of Gavin Dykes after last week’s 4-0 defeat to Ards. Seven points is required to catch next placed Carrick Rangers and only eight games remaining in what has been a dismal season for the Fermanagh side.

Glenavon will be hoping to take a step closer to securing third place as they halted their March losing streak with a late equaliser to claim a point against Glentoran last Saturday. The Lurgan Blues have comfortably won both fixtures between the sides this season to date.

Linfield v Glentoran (venue: Windsor Park; kick-off 3pm)

Any other weekend of the season – the Belfast ‘Big Two’ derby would be top billing but this game finds itself with two sides licking their wounds following Irish Cup quarter-final defeats to Coleraine and Cliftonville, respectively.

Whilst pride will also be of major significance for both sides, it is Glentoran with arguably more to play for as a win at Windsor Park will almost guarantee a place in the top six in the ‘post split’ season, should Ballymena United fail to pick up maximum points in their game.

Ronnie McFall has galvinised a faltering Glentoran team since replacing Gary Haveron but the former manager’s legacy against Linfield will still be fresh in the minds of both sets of supporters, with Curtis Allen’s Boxing Day winner meaning that his side go into this game with the bragging rights to defend.