Action from Crusaders v Larne in the Danske Bank Premiership (c) Presseye

PREVIEW: DANSKE BANK PREMIERSHIP WEEK 26

Three teams are locked on level points at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership as the most thrilling title race in years continues to take shape as we look ahead to all the weekend’s fixtures.

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

Two sides who finished in the top three in the Danske Bank Premiership last season are now battling it out in the bottom half of the table. David Jeffrey has made his first moves of the January transfer window with the departures of Ryan Mayse and Shane McGinty from the Showgrounds as he looks to improve the Sky Blues’ fortunes in the second half of the season, but he will have to do without striker Adam Lecky for the final game of his suspension which was carried over following the postponement of last Saturday’s game against Dungannon Swifts.

It’s been a revolving door at Mourneview Park this week as Caolan Marron, Andrew Mitchell (both Glentoran) and Stephen Murray (Portadown) have marked a trio of departures for Gary Hamilton’s faltering side. In comes defender Calum Birney from Glentoran as part of the deal to a side that fought back from behind to earn a point against Institute last Saturday to maintain seventh place in the standings. Recent signing Dylan Davidson sits out the trip to Warden Street through suspension.

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

Niall Currie has bolstered his striking options with the arrival of Darren Murray on loan from Glentoran for the remainder of the season. Carrick Rangers have only won one of their last six league games, and start Saturday in ninth place in the table, eleven points clear of safety. The two clubs last met back in August when the Reds ran out 1-0 winners at Taylor’s Avenue.

Reds boss Paddy McLaughlin must pick his team up from their Monday night defeat to Linfield in front of the Sky Sports cameras, but in the knowledge that they still level on points at the top of the Premiership before this round of fixtures. Michael McCrudden made his Reds debut from the bench on Monday in what was Cliftonville’s first defeat in six games.

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

The win for Stephen Baxter’s men on Friday Night Football at Coleraine last week pulled the Crues right back into the title race as despite still remaining in fourth position, the closely fought top end of the Danske Bank Premiership means they are only a point from returning to the summit. Since losing on Boxing Day to derby rivals Cliftonville – Crusaders have won their last four games without conceding a goal as they return to form.

Sixth placed Larne will be looking to push on in this second half of the season and close the gap on the title chasing top five clubs, they were in ruthless form last weekend – defeating Carrick Rangers 4-0 at Inver Park in the East Antrim derby. Northern Ireland Under-21 midfielder Sean Graham has returned to parent club Blackpool following having been recalled from his loan spell at Inver Park.

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

Sean Connor will still be ruing the dropped points in their encounter with Glenavon last Saturday – they surrendered a two goal lead to have to settle with a point at Mourneview Park. It means that ‘Stute are still without in nine games since the end of the November and are still firmly in danger of the drop with only a point and a place separating the North West club from the bottom of the table.

It’s been a hectic week at The Oval with the transfer window being fully utilised by manager Mick McDermott! In have come Glenavon duo Caolan Marron and Andrew Mitchell as a signal of intent from the Glentoran, with defender Calum Birney going the opposite direction and striker Darren Murray joining Carrick Rangers on loan. The Glens forged a late win against Warrenpoint Town last week after coming from behind to keep up their title push but will be without suspended veteran defender Gavin Peers tomorrow.

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

David Healy will be delighted to put the agony of the Irish Cup defeat to Queens University with their important victory against Cliftonville on Monday night in front of the Sky Sports cameras. Mark Stafford grabbed the winning goal which took the Blues back to top of the Danske Bank Premiership on goal difference as they strive for back-to-back titles. Twice this season Linfield have defeated the Swifts already this season – scoring four goals in each of those games.

Kris Lindsay returns to his former club as Dungannon Swifts manager with his club in real danger of relegation. The Swifts were without a game last Saturday as their encounter with Ballymena United fell victim to the weather and will take the confidence of their last outing (winning 3-2 in the Irish Cup against Institute) into the trip to Windsor Park but they will be without captain Seanan Clucas starts a six match suspension.

Warrenpoint Town v Coleraine (venue: Milltown; kick-off: 3pm)

Another tough game awaits at Milltown for Barry Gray’s new look side, after the disappointment of losing out to Glentoran last Saturday. The good news is that teenage goalkeeper Mark Byrne has had his red card rescinded and is likely to go back into the team alongside new loan signing Adam Carroll from Linfield. The County Down side are still bottom of the Premiership but are now only five points away from safety but need to start picking up points sooner rather than later.

Visitors Coleraine suffered a shock defeat on their last visit to Milltown, losing 3-1 back in November and will be hoping for no repeat of that as they aim to keep the pace with the rest of their peers in the top half of the table. The Bannsiders’ title hopes took a knock on Friday past with defeat to Crusaders at the Showgrounds and now find themselves in fifth place, but only three points off the top but have Lyndon Kane suspended for this game.