Irish Premiership: Crusaders 'stronger' for title defence
Stephen Baxter believes competition for places will be stronger than ever as his Crusaders side start the defence of their Irish Premiership crown.
The Seaview side, aiming for a hat-trick of titles, host Ballymena United in their opening match on Saturday.
They will be without midfielder Matthew Snoddy who was injured in what became a heated Charity Shield match against Glenavon last weekend.
Colin Coates and Michael Gault needed treatment for concussion but are OK.
They missed training this week but Snoddy is expected to be out for six to eight weeks.
Crues boss Baxter said after the Mourneview Park game that they would not be playing in any more Charity Shield matches.
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"These things happen in football but you don't expect these things from a charity game - that is probably where I was coming from," Baxter said.
"But it is football and you move on. The guys who had concussion are OK but Matthew is not so fortunate."
Crusaders, like many of their title rivals, have made a number of impressive signings during the summer break.
Former Linfield and Portadown midfielders Michael Gault and Philip Lowry have joined, along with ex-Ballymena danger man David Cushley and Coleraine skipper Howard Beverland.
"Michael brings a wealth of experience, David is an enigmatic player who is brilliant to watch, Howard is a leader with 10 years' experience behind him but is still only 26 and Philip has been there and done it at a professional level," added Baxter.
"But there is a brilliant bunch of players around them so they will all be for competing for places.
"That may lead to a headache for me as the manager picking the team."
For Ballymena boss David Jeffrey the trip to Seaview represents the toughest possible start to the campaign.
"We will be going there in a positive frame of mind - there is no point being a shrinking violet," said the former Linfield boss.
"It is a big test, but it is a good test which will show the players exactly where they are at."
Healy hungry for silverware
Much of the attention on the first day of the season will be on last season's runners-up Linfield who have signed Northern Ireland goalkeeper Roy Carroll and former international midfielder Sammy Clingan.
This week midfielders Josh Carson and Stephen Fallon were also added to the Windsor Park squad.
Former Ipswich Town and York City player Carson has won four senior caps for Northern Ireland while teenager Fallon has represented NI at youth level.
It will be a first full season in charge for David Healy, who took over from Warren Feeney in October, and his side will be expected to be the strongest rivals to Crusaders.
The Blues start with a trip to Ballinamallard who have a new man in charge in former Derry and Newry manager Gavin Dykes.
Keeper Carroll will be expected to play against his home town club but former Nottingham Forest and Coventry City man Clingan is still working his way back to match fitness.
"We have brought some players in and we want to narrow the gap on Crusaders who were the best team last season," said NI record goal scorer Healy.
"Crusaders, Cliftonville and Glenavon have all signed well. If we finish above those three and don't win the league I'll be very disappointed."
|Irish Premiership 6 August (15:00 BST)|
|Coverage on Radio Ulster's Sportsound from 14:00 BST|
Final Score from Northern Ireland is on BBC2 NI at 17:05 BST on Saturday