Irish Premiership: Crusaders must keep fighting in title defence - Baxter

Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter says his team will continue fighting to defend their league title
Baxter's Crusaders side lost 1-0 at Dungannon last weekend
Danske Bank Premiership - Friday, 15 February, 19:45 GMT
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Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter says his team will battle to retain the league title as they prepare to host Coleraine on Friday night.

The Crues are 12 points behind Premiership leaders Linfield while the Bannsiders sit in fifth.

In the other Friday-night matches, managerless Institute travel to Ards and Dungannon continue their pursuit of seventh place as they host Warrenpoint.

"We play every game to a conclusion and see where it takes us," said Baxter.

Last season's champions remain third in the table but lost further ground on Linfield and second-placed Ballymena following their defeat at Dungannon last week.

"There's a lot of big games to be played and a lot of points to be fought for but obviously we lost the last day and Linfield and Ballymena both won so we're playing catch-up a little," Baxter acknowledged.

"So we've just got to take them as they come and we'll be fighting to the death in every game we play no matter where we finish in this league, as long as I'm getting performances from the players that justify what they do then I'll be happy."

Coleraine have beaten Baxter's side twice this season but the Irish Cup holders allowed a two-goal lead slip against Linfield last week and manager Rodney McAree has admitted that the defeat has left him with some concerns about his team:

"We have to learn from our mistakes, we need more leaders and more players that want to stand up and take responsibility for things going on on the pitch," McAree argued.

"We need people who can guide others and bring them into the right positions and keep us nice and compact and withstand a little bit of pressure and then get us back in the game."

Rodney McAree celebrates his first win as Coleraine boss
Coleraine's win against Crusaders in October was Rodney McAree's first win as manager of the Bannsiders

Crusaders' two losses against Coleraine in the opening months of the season - a 3-0 reversal at Seaview in early September and a 1-0 loss at the Showgrounds the following month - have left Baxter under no illusions as to the size of the task his team face on Friday.

"I watched them play against Dungannon last week and I thought they were very good so we know all about their strengths, we played them a lot last year and I thought they were really good," added the Crusaders boss.

"Rodney has bought well and has got some good players in but on any day, all of these teams can beat each other and that's the beauty of the Irish League - you just don't know what you're getting from week to week."

In-form Swifts target Europa play-off

Dungannon's excellent run of form in the league has boosted the club's hopes of European qualification for next season.

The Swifts have earned 16 points from a possible 21 since the start of 2019, which leaves them just behind Glentoran in the battle to secure a Europa League play-off berth.

"It's tight between seventh and 10th, there's only a couple of points in it, so it's up to us to keep picking up wins and results and if we continue to do that there's no reason why we can't finish in seventh place," said manager Kris Lindsay ahead of their match against Warrenpoint Town at Stangmore Park.

Just three points separate seventh-placed Glentoran from Warrenpoint in 10th spot, so Lindsay is conscious of the importance of the Swifts' next three league matches, which are against the three clubs immediately below them in the table.

Dungannon's Dougie Wilson celebrates
Dungannon have lost just one of their last eight games in all competitions

"We need to make sure the momentum is still there and if we pick up points then you never know where we might finish," Linsday continued.

"Our aim has to be to finish seventh in the league and see where it takes us in the Europa League play-offs but Warrenpoint will be tough, they're a good side with good players and Stephen McDonnell has done a great job there and they play some nice football."

Following a chastening 5-0 home defeat by Glentoran last week, Point manager McDonnell is hoping the benefits of their Irish Cup win against Queen's on Monday can outweigh the physical toll of playing so many matches in quick succession.

"It's a sticky position to be put in with three games in six days so it's very difficult to ask that of part-time footballers but that's the way the fixtures have been dealt so we've had to look after bodies," said McDonnell.

"Hopefully that win will prepare them a little bit better. I'm sure they're now feeling a bit better about themselves, I certainly am, so we'll have to recover and get ready to go again."

'Every game is massive'

Second-from-bottom Newry City do not play this week, which could allow bottom side Ards to climb off the foot of the table.

Without a win since 29 December, Ards will take on an Institute side that have lost three-in-a-row in the league.

Darren Henderson in action for Ards
Darren Henderson has scored twice for Ards since his arrival in January

Ards recruited heavily during the January transfer window in a bid to climb off the foot of the table but manager Colin Nixon says the likes of Damien McNulty, Jonathan Smith and Darren Henderson will take time to bed into the team.

"They've only arrived so it's going to take time with them but time is something we don't have but we'll just have to keep working hard in training and push on," said Nixon.

"Every game we play in now is massive because we need the three points and that's the bottom line."

Former coach Kevin Doherty will continue as Institute's interim manager on Friday as the club continue to search for a permanent replacement for former boss Paddy McLaughlin.

Danske Bank Premiership - Friday, 15 February, 19:45 GMT
Dungannon SwiftsvWarrenpoint Town