On matchday eighteen of the NIFL Danske Bank Premiership Linfield weigh anchor as they travel along the Belfast Lough coastline to meet Carrick Rangers FC at the Loughshore Hotel Arena, Taylor's Avenue (3pm ko, all ticket). On the opening day of the season the Blues took all three points when they recorded a 2-0 home win over Carrick.
In their last Premiership fixture Linfield edged past a well organised Dungannon Swifts side (1-0) with a hard-fought win at Windor Park. In truth, the Swifts' display greatly belied their current position in the bottom half of the table (8th). This was further underlined after keeper Roy Carroll was called into action to make several fine saves, to keep a clean sheet with a performance which deservedly merited his award as MOTM. A neat headed goal from Andy Waterworth saw the Blues home for a win which keeps them right in the mix of what is fast becoming a fascinating race for the title.
Carrick Rangers have endured a tough league season which has so far seen them struggle to pull away from the peripice of the relegation drop zone. On Saturday they slumped to their seventh straight Premiership defeat when visitors Coleraine (3-1) took all the spoils. With the Premiership table now having almost virtually morphed into three mini-leagues, manager David McAlinden will be desperately keen to take points from those teams sitting in and around Carrick in the lower third of the table (Warrenpoint, Ards and Ballinamallard).
Despite having proved to be a happy hunting ground over the years, conditions at Taylor's Avenue have often proved difficult for a succession of visiting Linfield teams. The pitch itself has a pronounced slope running down towards the town end of the ground, turning some games into that old football cliche of 'a game of two halves'. The close location of the stadium to Belfast Lough leaves it exposed to the unpredictable swirling headwinds rolling off the sea which can turn a high ball into a lottery ball! And of course the close proximity of the supporters to the players at this compact stadium leaves no hiding place when teams are struggling. Any team that plays at Taylor's Avenue needs to be prepared to dig in deep both physically and mentally, if they want to get a result.
Linfield head to Carrick in a confident frame of mind after some recent big performances and some even bigger results. They will however not be underestimating the Amber Army who will be battling for every ball, as they strive to get their league campaign back on an even keel. As ever, the Linfield players will be looking towards support and encouragement from the large numbers of travelling supporters. Once again, the presence of these loyal supporters has generated another all ticket fixture at an Irish Premiership ground. As David Healy will tell you, they are Linfield's 'twelfth man'! COYB!