DANSKE BANK PREMIERSHIP: MATCHDAY 24 PREVIEW

It’s the first Danske Bank Premiership action of the New Year as we kick off what promises to be an exciting 2019!

Ards v Linfield (venue: Clandeboye Park; kick-off: 3pm)

The importance of Ards’ impressive 3-0 win against Dungannon Swifts on Saturday cannot be understated, Colin Nixon’s side remain bottom of the Premiership table but clawed back a vital three points against one of their relegation rivals in the battle for safety. They go into this big New Years’ home game with the gap reduced to three points now after their first win in 12 games.

At the other end of the table Linfield’s six match unbeaten run was extended to six games with a 2-0 victory over Cliftonville at Solitude at the weekend. However David Healy’s side have failed to win against the league’s basement side in the two meetings to date this season – a scoreless draw in September was followed by a shock 2-1 defeat in October. Young forward Ryan Strain has also returned to Windsor Park following a 12-game loan spell at Ards in the first half of the campaign.

Coleraine v Cliftonville (venue: Coleraine Showgrounds; kick-off: 3pm)

The Rodney McAree revolution is starting as he gets his first chance to freshen up a squad currently in sixth place at the turn of the year. The transfer window may have opened today but he will have to wait until Saturday’s Irish Cup game to blood new signings Jamie Glackin (Crusaders) and Ben Doherty (Derry City) whilst the Bannsiders will be without Ciaron Harkin who has moved to Derry City and Lyndon Kane who has broken his foot.

The two sides played out one of the biggest matches of 2018 at the Irish Cup final but only goal difference separates the two sides going into the game at the Showgrounds. It’s been a tough festive period for Barry Gray’s Cliftonville side who have lost their last three games, they will look to start 2019 afresh with confidence having defeated Coleraine 2-1 back in October thanks to goals from Levi Ives and Rory Donnelly.

Crusaders v Ballymena United (venue: Seaview; kick-off: 3pm)

The big clash of the day is at Seaview as two title chasing heavyweights meet in North Belfast. Ballymena United maintained their lead of the Danske Bank Premiership over Christmas and into the New Year but the latest test comes in the form of a resurgent Crusaders side. The Crues have found form (four league wins in a row) and dug out a vital late win against Glentoran on Saturday to move last year’s champions within five points of the leaders.

David Jeffrey’s men are unbeaten in three games against Crusaders this season, drawing once and winning twice – the latest coming last month in the semi-finals of the BetMcLean League Cup. Another undefeated month ended on Saturday with a 3-1 victory over Newry City at the Showgrounds, continued the Sky Blues’ unprecented club record run of 19 competitive games unbeaten. New signings Jordan Williamson (PSNI) and Ryan Harpur (Dungannon Swifts) won’t be eligible for this game, likewise to Crusaders’ two Derry City recruits Rory Hale and Gerard Doherty.

Glenavon v Warrenpoint Town (venue: Mourneview Park; kick-off: 3pm)

The transfer saga surrounding Glenavon’s young star Mark Sykes is finally drawing to a close with yesterday’s news that an agreement has been reached with League One side Oxford United for the transfer of the player. Sykes is unlikely to feature against Warrenpoint and Gary Hamilton’s midfield will be weakened by the departure of loanee Ben Doherty who returned to Derry City before joining Coleraine in the last few days. It’s been one win from five league games for Glenavon as they drop down to fourth in the table after their 3-3 draw with Institute last time out.

Warrenpoint Town drew 1-1 with Glenavon back in October but have only picked up two points in a busy December, leaving them ninth in the table. They have lost influential goalkeeper Aaron McCarey to Dundalk but made a treble swoop yesterday for Lee Duffy (Drogheda United), Jarad Thompson (Chelsea) and Hernany Macedo Marques (St. Patrick’s Athletic) as they aim to stave off the threat of relegation during the second half of the season.

Glentoran v Dungannon Swifts (venue: The Oval; kick-off: 3pm)

Things continue to get worse for Glentoran as their winless run is the longest since the 1906/07 season following defeat to Crusaders on Saturday. Hopes of a top six berth have all but disappeared for Ronnie McFall’s side as they languish in eighth five points behind Institute (albeit with a game in hand) following 11 games without a victory as the Glens will be glad to see the back of a disappointing 2018.

Kris Lindsay’s Swifts also find themselves in trouble following a dismal home defeat to bottom placed Ards at the weekend. Last time the sides met, five weeks ago, it was the Swifts who came out on top thanks to a Seanan Clucas goal – but that was the last victory for the County Tyrone side as two points accumulated from their last available 18 has left them hovering only a point above the drop zone going into the New Year.

Newry City v Institute (venue: Newry Showgrounds; kick-off: 3pm)

Defeat for Darren Mullen’s Newry City at leaders Ballymena United mean they start 2019 in the relegation places. But with only two defeats in their last six league games there is cause for optimism as the County Down side reflect on a hugely successful 2018. Although they will be wary of a ‘Stute side that has defeated them twice already this year in the league.

Institute are proving to be the great entertainers this season with yet another 3-3 draw against Glenavon at the weekend for the third time in five games! They may have jointly conceded the most goals in the division but the North West side are sitting comfortably in seventh place and will be looking to secure a potential Europa League playoff place in the second half of their first season back in the Premiership.

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