|Date: Monday, December 26th|
|coverage: Glentoran v Linfield live on BBC Two NI and BBC iPlayer from 13:45 BST; Sportsound on BBC Sounds and Radio Ulster from 14:00; Live text commentary and in-play clips on the BBC Sport website|
It’s a tradition as festive as the turkey and all the trimmings and presents under the Christmas tree.
Held in front of large crowds, the annual Boxing Day Irish derbies are one of the highlights of the Northern Ireland football calendar.
With this season’s title race turning into an exciting one, the annual matches on December 26th are as hotly anticipated as ever, with more than just bragging rights over challengers as vulnerable as they are.
The campaign is halfway there, and with the January transfer window approaching, we thought it was a good time to reflect on the season so far and how events might unfold over the festive season and in the months ahead.
Glentoran – Linfield (14:00 GMT).
This big showdown in Belfast is made even more interesting by the fact that both sides have genuine title ambitions, as last year the game will be shown live for the first time on BBC Two NI and BBC iPlayer.
The Glens got their 2022-23 tenure off to a fast start and appeared to be firmly in the driving seat as they sat on top of the heap after a sweeping statement 4-0 win defeated previously undefeated Chief Larn in late October.
This took the Eastern club’s record in Belfast to nine wins and a draw from 10 matches with just one goal.
a 3-0 victory On Linfield at Windsor Park a few weeks ago, Mick McDermott’s side distinguished themselves as real contenders, although their rivals did turn the Derby tide somewhat by beating their greatest rivals in the County Antrim Shield and League Cup links.
They were somewhat deserted by the Glens at the start of the season, but with star Conor McMenamin injured and his resulting absence taking its toll.
Just four points from their last six league matches mark a significant dip in the Oval side’s fortunes and they will aim to avoid a repeat of last season when their promising championship challenge faded.
The trajectory of Linfield’s form was the opposite of their opponents, as a slow start to the campaign was followed by a string of encouraging results to force them back into contention – an ominous sign for their rivals given their title-winning credentials in recent seasons.
The crushing disappointment of making their debut in the group stage of the Conference League Europa League snatched away in the harshest conditions left them a tough headache for the champions to overcome in the early months.
In a run of seven wins and two draws from their last nine league matches, David Healy’s players finished third, five points behind leaders Larne ahead of their impressive encounter with Glentoran at The Oval.
Crusaders – Cliftonville (15:00 GMT).
The Crusaders’ impressive home form has helped them stay competitive at the higher tiers of the table and with a number of injured players, including the influential Ben Kennedy likely to return to the ranks at some point, Seaview will aim to hold their squad together. Attempt sustainable ownership.
The prolific Philip Lowry scored an impressive 12 goals from midfield to bolster his side’s championship chase and limit the impact of the absence of key champions such as Kennedy and Paul Heatley, who missed seven matches through suspension.
Lowry’s tally shows he sits top of the scorers charts heading into the Boxing Day matches.
Like their north Belfast neighbours, Cliftonville’s results at home to Solitude in particular – going unbeaten in the league – have kept them in good touch with the Premier League leaders and finishing second to beat Glentoran 1-0 Tuesday.
The experience of coming close to landing the Gibson Cup last season should put Paddy McLaughlin’s men in good stead if they continue to race after the end of the business.
The first match between the two teams this season in October ended without goals. Here he is hoping to get more by scoring goals on Monday.
Coleraine – Ballymena United (15:00 GMT).
The two teams go into this “A26 derby” and occupy mid-table positions, although sixth-placed Coleraine clear Ballymena by 10 points.
The Bannsiders were quick to get off the blocks, securing a promising four wins from their first five top-flight competitions, before a relative decline in their credentials saw their title challenge called into question.
A run of five wins and two draws from eight league games has seen Oran Kearney’s men within striking distance of the group leaders once again, but while they have recovered their early season form, they may have left themselves with a lot to do in terms of performance. They wrestle over the top of affairs.
Ballymena’s season has been indifferent so far but with doubts about the future of manager David Jeffrey Apparently put him to bedvictories over Coleraine, the Crusaders, and Cliftonville raised morale a bit around Warden Street.
Points dropped against the sides in the bottom six remain something of an Achilles’ heel for the Braidmen.
With ground advantage and league joint top scorer Matthew Shefflin (12) in their ranks, Coleraine may enter this clash as marginal favorites to avenge their last-gasp defeat to rivals 12 months ago, but their derby days are nothing if not unexpected.
Glenavon – Portadown (15:00 GMT).
Glenavon’s continued contradiction is reflected in ninth place in the league, two points behind Carrick Rangers but with one game in hand.
Victories over Coleraine and Glentoran were mixed with points dropping against teams in the lower half.
The indiscipline that afflicted the early part of their campaign – five red cards in their first five matches – has at least been reined in.
Portadown’s season so far has been a horror show, but there have been signs of a recovery in recent weeks since Niall Currie was appointed to replace Paul Doolin as manager.
Four points in 20 outings represented an unenviable return on the part of Shamrock Park, which he blocked successful callHowever, they lost another invaluable three points due to an administrative error in their 3-1 win over Newry City.
Expect a dogfight in mid-Ulster at Mourneview Park as both teams look for valuable points to boost their disappointing league positions.
Larne – Carrick Rangers (17:30 GMT).
At 17:30 BST on Monday, leaders Larne face off against East Antrim rivals Carrick Rangers at Inver Park.
Known for their precision passing play, Tiernan Lynch’s side have adopted a more pragmatic approach this season, combining flowing attacking football with a frugal defense that has conceded only 13 goals in 19 appearances.
The summer acquisitions of Paul O’Neill from Cliftonville and Leroy Millar from Ballymena proved highly successful and a vital component to Invermen’s improved form in their travels to match results on their own patch.
The club is back on track after recent defeats to Linfield and Coleraine, beating Glenavon and Larne in their last two matches.
Carrick Rangers started their season strongly, with the seven goals of experienced striker Curtis Allen helping them to a mid-table berth and claim notable scalps on Taylors Street in the form of Linfield and Crosaders.
Four losses in their last five games have halted the momentum somewhat and Stewart King’s men will be keen to avoid a repeat of the 2021-22 campaign when their pre-season form ended in the closing stages of the campaign.
Dungannon Swifts – Newry City (15:00 GMT).
Dungannon’s often elegant football in the first half of the season was not met with positive results, although recent victories over Glenavon and Carrick Rangers yielded valuable points.
All points for Dean Shiels’ side have come home to Stangmore Park, which will provide hope of victory in the only non-derby Boxing Day match.
As it stands, it looks like Dungannon and Portadown will battle to avoid automatic relegation from the First Division, with the other taking part in the play-offs/relegation at the end of the season.
Newry City did well on their return to the First Division and finished 10th in the table, eight points off the bottom two.
A repeat of their victory over Swift in September will widen that gap.
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