Early thrill but time is not on side of Crusaders or Linfield
Serving up one of the season's most anticipated fixtures so early in the programme provides an early thrill for supporters on the terraces but both Crusaders and Linfield enter the Seaview clash on Saturday aware that time may not prove on either squad's side.
Linfield and Crusaders will serve up the showpiece as the Danske Bank Premiership’s previous two title winners but still gaining ground towards top speed in the current campaign.
The Blues draw confidence from maximum points to date ahead of a trip to tackle a Crues side with the upper hand over each of last season’s four league meetings between the high-profile rivals.
“I think it takes around six weeks to settle into the new league season,” said Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter. “We are pretty pleased with four points from our two games to date, all clubs are in the same position at this point.
“You should always feel under self-imposed pressure for success in this game but, of course, Linfield especially are the traditional big noise in Irish League football.
“That desire across the club is always there and they’ve strengthened well.”
Linfield manager David Healy accepts the early positives off a perfect points return but is looking for long-term development.
“I wouldn’t say at this point of the season we are as fit, at that peak, where we were last year with the European games,” said Healy on the official Linfield website. “But that rebounded on us, ending up on our knees towards the end of last season.
“We’ve still two or three injured and suspended, so still a long way off where we want to be.
“Last year we were short on quality and short of fitness, on our last legs for the final two or three months but, hopefully, that won’t happen this year.
“The players are building up but, hopefully, we are bigger and stronger.
“We started last year with clean sheets and victories too but the test is how far we’ve come.
“People are going to be asking what’s this Linfield team got, to go to Seaview and put up a solid performance as we’re going to need that for sure.
“It’s important to build momentum, slowly but surely we’ll get there as these are good players and that belief is growing.
“You might only get one chance so it’s important when it does comes we are clinical and ruthless and take it.”
One player who has proved to deliver that cutting edge in Crusaders colours is recent signing Rory Patterson.
The former Derry City forward enters Seaview aiming to build on back-to-back goals across his first two Danske Bank Premiership displays.
Patterson’s arrival offers a contrasting challenge to the Linfield backline compared to the greater physical threat of the injured Jordan Owens but boss Baxter remains delighted with how he has adapted.
“For all signings now I almost take it as a given they will settle quickly, given so many know each other in the game and alongside the work we do as a club to help with bonding,” said Baxter. “Rory is still in his early days here but has been magnificent so far and is a top, top player plus lethal in the box.
“He is enthusiastic and has that desire to do well here.
“But the same is for any signings, we do our work and the squad is knitting together even in those early days of the season.”
The switch towards a full-time set-up has attracted greater scrutiny than ever on the work of the Seaview squad but Baxter rejects any suggestion it offers the upper hand ahead of Linfield.
“Five days of working together compared to two helps but, in terms of work, the approach and focus remains the same,” he said. “There’s very little we don’t know about each other at this point and it still comes down to 90 minutes of football.”