Can Linfield's Premiership run be halted?

Linfield won the 2011/12 Irish Premiership

The Irish Premiership returns on Saturday - it is a new season with new sponsors, but what are the prospects of new champions being crowned at the end of April?

Mighty Linfield have won the league and cup double for six of the last seven seasons and will start odds-on favourites to lift the Gibson Cup for the 52nd time in their history.

Portadown, Cliftonville, Crusaders, Coleraine and Glentoran all hold ambitions of a sustained title challenge this time around.

Reporter Damien Edgar asked Radio Ulster's Sportsound analysts for their predictions.

"I suppose there are parallels to be drawn with the Scottish league, because now Rangers have gone, Celtic will dominate," said Chris Morgan who won league titles with Crusaders, Linfield and Glentoran.

"People want to see a competitive championship and a good spread of winners, but Linfield are only getting stronger and it looks like the gap is widening.

"There are teams that can beat Linfield on their day, certainly. Over the course of a 10-month season, however, I think Linfield's strength in depth will tell.

Former Ballymena United and Crusaders boss Roy Walker believes the biggest threat to Linfield's dominance could come from north Belfast.

"Cliftonville and Crusaders have been adding to their squads. Crusaders have signed Gary McCutcheon and what a player he is.

"But, looking around at the clubs in the top division at the minute, I don't know if there are many managers with experience of getting over the championship line with a team.

"You have the likes of Ronnie McFall at Portadown, and his experience is invaluable.

"I think the way forward for clubs now is to put a real emphasis on developing youth. There is the national league for youth teams and clubs have put a lot more effort into developing young players.

"It is trying to hold on to those players once they have reached a good level of development. It was the same when I was in charge of Crusaders, you lose players to the bigger clubs and that's natural."

Paul Kirk, a former Linfield and Glentoran player, and Lisburn Distillery manager, envisages Linfield's blue and white ribbons on the Premiership trophy for a fourth year in a row.

"It's a one horse race as far as I'm concerned. Linfield signing Tipton was a massive move," said Kirk.

"He is a player who can get them at least 20 a season. All the teams have added goalscorers, because that's what wins games, but Linfield have added goals to a team already full of goals.

Kirk agrees there is a danger that the league has lost its competitive edge.

"In terms of challengers, I'm not so sure Glentoran will last the pace.

"They have a young team and probably won't be able to find the consistency needed.

"Oran Kearney is a good manager and I think his Coleraine team will be looking to push on up the table.

"Cliftonville and Crusaders might not agree, but I believe there's a massive gap between Linfield and the rest of the league and I that gap has widened too far at this stage.

Linfield have the best manager in the league in David Jeffrey.

"If he stays at Linfield for the foreseeable future, there's every chance that he will beat Roy Coyle's wonderful record at Windsor Park."

Former Cliftonville goalkeeper Bobby Carlisle says Crusaders are the only team capable of ending Linfield's dominance.

"Stephen Baxter has put together a good squad," said Carlisle.

"But when you look at the match day programmes at Windsor Park, it's obvious Linfield have eight or nine players more in their squad than their opposition and most of Linfield's squad players would walk right into first teams elsewhere.

"They've just signed Matthew Tipton, who's a wonderful player. When you put him in with Peter Thompson and the returning Brian McCaul, then it's hard to look past them.

"Portadown will raise their game and win big games on their day, but they will also lose games they shouldn't and Linfield just don't do that.

"Glentoran are bringing through a good young team and they didn't lose to Linfield last season, but then they finished quite far down the table, so it's hard to see how they can catch up."

Sportsound's coverage of the new Irish Premiership season starts on Radio Ulster medium wave on Saturday from 10:30 BST.

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