Irish Premiership: Top-four showdowns as title race hots up

Crues midfielder Declan Caddell and Linfield's Stephen Fallon tussle for the ball
Crues midfielder Declan Caddell and Linfield's Stephen Fallon tussle for the ball

Premiership leaders Linfield host third-placed Crusaders on Saturday while it's second versus fourth as Coleraine travel to face Cliftonville.

The festive treats could prove vital in the title race as the season enters a hectic period of Christmas fixtures.

Linfield are two points clear with two games in hand but boss David Healy is wary of the chasing pack.

"There are so many teams in the mix and points will be dropped over Christmas - we must take care of our own job."

The champions go up against an improving Glentoran side on Boxing Day and then visit Coleraine two days later.

Crusaders are three points behind the Blues, who they defeated in October, after picking up just one point in their last two outings.

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Hale hits stunner as Crusaders edge Linfield

Crues manager Stephen Baxter has praise for his opposite number at Windsor Park and he's happy to still be in contention for the Gibson Cup.

"David is a great guy - he works out his tactics brilliantly and he has a brilliant squad," he said.

"They are so competitive and he's brought Linfield a long, long way, Indeed, we are all doing that.

"I always say at the start of the season we want to be playing our football in the top four. If you can then hang around the leaders you are always in the right spot.

"If you handed me a top-four position coming into this time of year I would have broken your arm for it - we're delighted where we are.

"The season is over 38 games. We had a seven-point lead at one stage so things can ebb and flow. There's lots of games over Christmas with squads stretched and tested."

Blues bossing it

Coleraine and Cliftonville have also slipped up in recent weeks to allow Linfield to storm to the top with four straight wins.

The Bannsiders travel to Solitude with just one victory in their last five league matches and manager Oran Kearney has pinpointed an area of concern.

"We're happy with the chances we are creating and that's a sign that the performances are in the right place," he said.

An audacious effort from Coleraine striker James McLaughlin against Cliftonville in August
An audacious effort from Coleraine striker James McLaughlin against Cliftonville in August

"The key thing is we've just got to be more ruthless and put the ball in the back of the net."

It will be an emotional return to action for Carrick Rangers after the tragic death of their player Jerry Thompson last week.

Niall Currie's side entertain the fifth-placed Glens while basement side Warrenpoint Town take on Larne at Milltown.

Saturday's other game is a bottom-of the-table affair with Institute in 11th sitting five points behind their Stangmore Park opponents Dungannon Swifts.

Danske Bank Irish Premiership - Saturday 21 December (15:00 GMT)
Radio Ulster and live text commentary on the BBC Sport website
Carrick RangersvGlentoran
Cliftonville vColeraine
Dungannon SwiftsvInstitute
LinfieldvCrusaders
Warrenpoint Town vLarne

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