Crusaders host Linfield in crunch encounter at Seaview

Ross Clarke and Jordan Owens
Linfield have failed to beat Crusaders in three meetings between the sides this season

Crusaders will hope to reduce the four-point gap opened up by Linfield at the top of the Premiership when the sides meet at Seaview on New Year's Day.

The Blues have won six games in a row but will be missing Ivan Sproule, who is suspended after being sent-off after scoring the winning goal on Boxing Day.

The teams have met three times this season, with the Crues winning one of the league games and the other drawn.

Stephen Baxter's side came out on top in a County Antrim Shield tie.

"The top three or four have been chopping and changing and we were struggling to keep up for a while but three wins on the bounce have put us right back in the mix again," said Crusaders captain Colin Coates.

"This is a huge game for both teams and we want to close the gap they have created over the last few weeks - it's been exciting for the fans and hopefully the league stays tight right until the end.

"We think we can win the title and the manager has brought in some good players who will give us extra strength in depth when injuries and suspensions can take their toll.

"Stephen O'Flynn and Barry Molloy are both quality and hopefully they can give us that extra edge to kick on.

"As a defender, you are more switched on when you are up against the likes of Joe Gormley and Andy Waterworth as you know that if they get a chance, they are more than likely to take it."

Linfield midfielder Jamie Mulgrew believes Warren Feeney's side have "upped the tempo and quality" of their game in recent weeks and "shown real fighting spirit and togetherness".

"The further up the table we have progressed, the more our belief has grown. We are looking like a team that is hard to beat but we're not getting carried away," he added.

Also on Thursday, Portadown, who lie fourth, level on points with third-placed Cliftonville, travel to Ballycastle Road, to take on Oran Kearney's Coleraine.

At the Oval, Glentoran host an Institute side who are just four points ahead of basement club Warrenpoint Town at the foot of the table.

"Each of the next 10 matches leading up to the split are now like cup finals for us and we have to give them our very best shot," emphasised 'Stute manager Paul Kee.

"Glentoran are formidable at the Oval - the last time we were there we gave a good account of ourselves and hopefully we can put in a similar performance, with a better result."

Warrenpoint manager Barry Gray emphasised that "two games in three days is a hefty schedule for part-time players" but he is looking forward to two home matches, starting with a clash with Ballymena United at Milltown.

Ballymena have central defender Johnny Taylor back after suspension, while long-term injury victim Jim Ervin is back in action with the reserves and Gary Thompson and David Cushley have returned to training.

Thursday 1 January - Danske Bank Premiership - 15:00 GMT kick-offs

Coleraine v Portadown

Crusaders v Linfield

Glentoran v Institute

Warrenpoint Town v Ballymena Utd

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