Irish Premiership: Who will come out on top in a thrilling Irish League title race?

Robbie McDaid and Navid Nasseri
Robbie McDaid and Navid Nasseri have played significant roles in Glentoran's rise to the summit

By popular consent it is probably the most thrilling Irish League title race ever with five clubs having realistic ambitions of lifting the Gibson Cup as we approach the tail end of January.

All five clubs have enjoyed spells at the Premiership summit so far during the campaign but who is likely to come out on top when it matters come the end of April?

With only three points separating the contenders we assess the strengths and weaknesses of each club, who the key men are likely to be and their title pedigree based on past experience.

Glentoran

From mid-table mediocrity to sitting at the top of the table looking down on the rest it's been quite a 12 months for Glentoran - but they will be looking for something tangible to show for their exertions in terms of a trophy.

With debts paid off and the takeover of the club complete, attention is now firmly focused on the club's fortunes on the pitch as manager Mick McDermott and his charges aim to secure a first Irish League triumph since 2009.

Although improvement was expected given the extent of the investment in the East Belfast club, the transformation in their fortunes has been rapid and remarkable and with three months remaining and a one-point lead they are the ones the rest have to catch.

Shrewdness in the transfer market and gelling a truly international gathering of players have been key to the upturn in the club's fortunes and with the Glens on a run of 15 league games without defeat, 13 of those wins, they are very much the form horse in the field with momentum in their favour.

The Oval outfit have moved to strengthen their squad by adding experienced defender Keith Cowan and ex-Glenavon pair Caolan Marron and Andy Mitchell to their ranks during the January transfer window, as well as agreeing new contracts with key players such as free-kick specialist Hrvoje Plum.

The Croatian has been something of a revelation and his goals, along with those supplied by a rejuvenated Robbie McDaid, have helped propel their side to the top of the standings.

Inexperience of involvement in a title run-in may count against the men from Mersey Street but given the quality and depth of the squad now assembled at the Oval few would be surprised if they ended up top of the pile in three months' time.

Jamie McGonigle
Jamie McGonigle has made a big impact in his first season with Crusaders after signing from Coleraine

Crusaders

In contrast to cross-city rivals Glentoran, Crusaders, currently second, have bags of experience of being involved in title races under manager Stephen Baxter in recent years, including winning the title three times in four attempts between 2015 and 2018.

Last season was a notable exception to that sequence as the Crues found themselves out of contention by Christmas - but they are firmly back in the mix this time round.

Like Linfield, consistency has been somewhat hard to come by for the team from north Belfast but their current top-flight form of four successive wins, scoring 13 goals and conceding none in that run of games, has sounded out an ominous warning to their title rivals.

Regular rampaging frontmen Jordan Owens and Paul Heatley have had to share the headlines with fellow forward Jamie McGonigle this term, the former Coleraine man making a big impact in his first season on the Shore Road.

The north Belfast club are still challenging for trophies on three fronts, with a League Cup final against Coleraine to come next month, as well as their defence of the Irish Cup to focus on.

With defender Cameron Dummigan now on board and plenty of strength in depth in their ranks few would bet against Crusaders having at least one trophy in their cabinet to show for their efforts come May.

Strikers Andrew Waterworth and Shayne Lavery will aim to help Linfield retain their title
Strikers Andrew Waterworth and Shayne Lavery will aim to help Linfield retain their title

Linfield

It's been a funny old season down Windsor Park way and while the Blues have yet to really hit top gear you get the feeling they will be right there or thereabouts at the business end of things when the championship medals are handed out at the conclusion of the campaign.

Despite struggling for consistency and having to deal with the shock of their Irish Cup exit at the hands of Queen's the champions' hopes of retaining their crown remain very much alive as they sit third, two points behind leaders Glentoran with one match in hand, away to Larne.

If there is one positive to take from their early cup demise it is that they can now completely concentrate their efforts on chasing a 54th Irish League success without distraction.

Having won the title last season to make it two league victories in three years, the Blues have plenty of experience on board in terms of players who have 'been there and done it' for those potentially nerve-shredding final few weeks of the championship race.

Manager David Healy will be looking to the likes of Northern Ireland squad member Shayne Lavery, Joel Cooper and Jordan Stewart to provide those moments of inspiration and match-changing magic which could turn the title tide in their favour.

That's in addition to keeping things tight at the back - as was the case last term the Blues have the meanest defence in the top flight with just 17 goals conceded to date.

Linfield have also boosted their selection options with the recruitment of Kyle McClean, who spent the second half of last season on loan at the club on loan from St Johnstone, and forward Rory Currie on loan from Hearts.

Ben Doherty
Ben Doherty's goals have been crucial to Coleraine mounting a title challenge

Coleraine

If few would have predicted Glentoran as title challengers at the start of the season, the same could be said of Coleraine, who established their credentials early on with home and away win doubles over both Linfield and Crusaders.

The Bannsiders did not taste defeat in the Premiership until losing to Warrenpoint Town in mid-November and although their form has been more patchy since then, they still have strong claims on the title as they fly the flag for the provincial teams against the big four from Belfast.

The return of manager Oran Kearney from St Mirren has precipitated a return to the kind of form which saw the Ballycastle Road outfit fall agonisingly short of coming out on top in the 2017-18 title race, being pipped at the post by Crusaders on a tense final day.

Without the financial resources of their rivals, Kearney has assembled a panel built on collective strength as much as individual brilliance, with each squad member playing their part.

Aaron Canning has helped build firm foundations at the back, with midfielder Ben Doherty and winger Jamie Glackin also playing influential roles.

Perhaps still regarded as outsiders by some, a lack of depth in their squad may count against them in the end if injuries and suspensions kick in.

Joe Gormley has been in typically prolific goalscoring form for Cliftonville
Joe Gormley has been in typically prolific goalscoring form for Cliftonville

Cliftonville

One indication of the close nature of this title race is that Cliftonville found themselves in fifth place on Saturday evening, having been top of the table at the start of play just seven days earlier. Consecutive defeats to Linfield and Cliftonville have done little to boost confidence they can stay the course.

True to form, prolific striker Joe Gormley has played a pivotal part in the Reds' title bid, banging in 16 goals, but perhaps surprisingly Paddy McLaughlin's side have scored the least goals of any of the five title contenders.

On the plus side, manager Paddy McLaughlin has stemmed the flow of goals at the back which plagued his predecessor Barry Gray, his team having conceded a mere 18 goals in 25 games, just one more than Linfield.

Ex-Derry City player Conor McDermott and attacker Conor McMenamin have also played starring roles for the Solitude side as they put together their tilt at the title.

The arrival of former Institute and Derry forward Michael McCrudden has further bolstered McLaughlin's attacking options, along with retaining the services of Ruaidhri Donnelly, who was linked with a move to Larne.

As with the Glens and Coleraine, Cliftonville's title pedigree in terms of their ability to go the distance will be tested over the closing weeks of the campaign as they target a first championship success since 2014.

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