Irish Premiership: Buoyant Blues, young Reds and impressive Invermen - five things we noticed

By Matt GaultBBC Sport NI

Linfield send out a statement, Glentoran and Cliftonville drop points again and Larne continue their excellent run.

There was plenty to unpack from the Irish Premiership action over the weekend, so let's get right into it with five things we noticed.

Linfield closing the door on rivals

Blues hammer Crues to step up title defence

How quickly it can all change in a few short weeks. For a while, it looked as though we were going to be treated to a title race for the ages; five teams all vying for the Gibson Cup with sub-plots aplenty.

The top of the table looks a little different now, however, after Linfield's 4-0 statement win over Crusaders.

It's been a funny season for the Blues. After the excitement and agony of the Europa League qualifiers, they have decimated Glenavon (twice) and Warrenpoint Town but have also suffered some lows, most notably the 3-0 defeat by Glentoran on Boxing Day and the Irish Cup exit at the hands of Queen's University.

But since losing to Larne, they've been the Linfield of old, rattling off a four-game winning run which culminated with David Healy's side swatting away a sorry-looking Crusaders.

With their fellow title contenders struggling to stick the pace, David Healy's side now enjoy a seven-point lead over Coleraine.

They're threatening to pull away from the chasing pack. As much as we want to see a five-way battle for the title, Linfield deserve credit for the manner in which they responded to their defeat at Inver Park.

No need for Bannsiders firepower as Canning takes charge

Coleraine put four past Stute to go second

While Crusaders doubled down on their Windsor woes, there was no sign of a post-League Cup hangover for Coleraine as they eased to a 4-0 win over struggling Institute at the Brandywell.

A quick look at the Coleraine teamsheet revealed the depth of attacking talent at Oran Kearney's disposal. In addition to starters James McLaughlin and Stewart Nixon, the Bannsiders had three recognised strikers on the bench in Emmett McGuckin, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Curtis Allen.

Even without Eoin Bradley, their attack looks to be in rude health.

Of course, the forwards needn't have worried as Aaron Canning popped up with a first-half double to put Coleraine in control with Stephen O'Donnell and Josh Carson rounding off a job well done for Kearney's side.

Coleraine are now best-placed to challenge Linfield. If they can win next week's game in hand at home to Glenavon and narrow the gap to four points, a Blues-Bannsiders title showdown looks to be the most likely scenario.

Purkis could be key in Glenavon rebuild

Highlights: Glenavon fight back to thwart Glentoran

Glenavon's troubles this season have been well-documented but the mood around Mourneview Park has improved greatly after having taken four points off Crusaders and Glentoran.

It's a season of transition for the Lurgan Blues with manager Gary Hamilton focused on rebuilding his squad ahead of next year.

While Hamilton has waved goodbye to Rhys Marshall, Caolan Marron and Andrew Mitchell, he looks to have bagged a gem in Danny Purkis.

The striker, who bagged goals for fun with East Belfast before joining Glenavon in January, has wasted no time in making an impression for his new club, taking his top-flight tally to four with a well-taken header against Glentoran on Saturday.

With a tireless work-rate and natural poaching instincts, the 24-year-old could play a key role in Hamilton's rebuild.

As for Glentoran, they've now taken two points from their last three games as they look forward to a run of Crusaders in the cup before Cliftonville, Crusaders and Linfield in the league before the split.

It may not be going their way but it's certainly not going to get any easier.

Injuries taking toll as McLaughlin bloods young Reds

Gormley goal rescues point for Reds at Solitude

Cliftonville's growing injury list is such that Paddy McLaughlin included seven teenagers in matchday squad for the visit of Ballymena United to Solitude on Saturday.

Levi Ives, Jamie Harney, and Thomas Maguire were all missing on Saturday, therefore opening the door to untested youngsters Peter McKiernan, Brodie Spencer and Odhran Casey with 18-year-old Calvin McCurry handed his first league start.

While McLaughlin has been left frustrated by the absences of some of his key men, he can take some satisfaction from McCurry getting minutes under his belt and McKiernan making his senior debut.

A youthful-looking Reds outfit were unable to secure a much-needed win, however, as the Sky Blues took a point back up the M2 to Ballymena (their first in 2020 incidentally), leaving Cliftonville with five points from their last six league games.

Even with such an exciting crop of fresh-faced talent to support Joe Gormley, staying in touch with Linfield is a big ask of McLaughlin's side at this stage.

Larne hitting stride at perfect time

Larne leave it late to beat Point

Like Linfield, Larne have found their stride at a very opportune time.

For much of this season, Tiernan Lynch's side have occupied some form of Irish Premiership purgatory. They've been head and shoulders above the bottom half of the table, but struggled to build enough momentum to threaten the summit.

Until now. The Invermen's 1-0 win over Warrenpoint Town was a sixth success on the bounce in all competitions, moving them to within two points of Cliftonville and Crusaders.

With the Irish Cup dream still very much alive, a trophy and a top-five finish would represent an excellent first season back in the top-tier for Larne.

There's a long way to go, of course, but they've shown how they can beat anyone on their day. Right now, it would take a brave man to bet against them improving their league position before the end of April.

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