By Rob Wright
Derry v Bohemians
Derry City welcome struggling Bohemians to the Brandywell, eager to keep up the pressure on league leaders St Patrick’s Athletic.
The Candystripes trail the Saints side by three points with a lesser goal difference, but with a game in hand, they will be hoping to avoid any kind of slip-up.
This will be the first of two games over the space of four days between the two sides, with the EA Sports Cup quarter-final taking place in Dalymount on Monday evening.
Derry got the better of the Gypsies earlier in the season, winning 4-0 and manager Declan Devine will be hoping for more of the same.
"Although Bohemians home form has been a little indifferent their away form has been quite good, having drawn at least with some of the top teams,” the Derry boss warned.
“Yes, we had a good result down there earlier in the season but that is forgotten now and we need to be at our best to make sure that we can get a similar result here in the Brandywell. We have been back training all week and I think the break has helped us greatly, the lads have been great during training and they all seem to have a lot of energy which is good to see."
Devine must plan without the services of top goalscorer Rory Patterson, who is suspended for an accumulation of yellow cards, while Barry Molloy, Thomas Crawley and Dermot McCaffery are all sidelined with injury.
Bohemians travel to the Brandywell without some of their most experienced players. Bohs boss Aaraon Callaghan, already used to relying on young players will be without the experience trio of Owen Heary (hip injury), Dave Mulcahy (virus) and Derek Pender (suspended).
There are also doubts as to whether Dave Scully (ankle), Ryan McEvoy (virus), Stephen Traynor (ankle) or Kevin O’Leary (virus) will be fit for selection.
Without a league win in eight games and with only 13 goals to their credit this season, the Gypsies are in a relegation dogfight, but Callaghan remains upbeat and believes his side can take something from this game.
"We’ll go to Derry knowing that three points would give us a huge lift. But to come away with a point would be fantastic. We have to take heart from the fact that UCD went up there and won and we had a good result in Sligo a few weeks back," he said.
"Our home form has been baffling at times. We don’t seem to start games well at home and we need to address that. But we’ve had some fantastic results away from home. The young lads have stepped up to the mark and we’ll be asking them to do it again."
Despite the optimism from the Gypsies boss, Derry should have too much about them to be troubled by the visitors and a home win looks to be the most likely outcome.
Drogheda United v Shamrock Rovers
Drogheda United are hoping to end a four-match losing streak but come up against a Shamrock Rovers side that have finally appeared to found some semblance of form.
Memories of the Setanta Cup final in which Rovers won 7-1 at Tallaght still linger in the memory and the Drogs haven’t won at home in the league since mid-April, but manager Mick Cooke is still confident his side can get a result.
"We've always taken one game at a time and the lads know what they need to do. No-one is getting ahead of themselves. We have lost our last four games, but I've never been unhappy with the performances, it's something we are working on and we are using as a motivating factor," Cooke said.
"We have a few lads out for tomorrow night, but I think this just presents an opportunity to the rest of the lads in the squad to put their hands up for a starting place. We have two games before Thursday and I said that we need the game time, we have a few lads who haven't played in a month."
Among those missing are the suspended quartet of Alan Byrne, Alan McNally, Ryan Brennan and David Cassidy, pointing to some of the disciplinary issues that Drogheda have endured. Elsewhere, Eric Foley may miss the rest of the season having undergone a hernia operation.
Rovers, meanwhile, seem to be finally hitting some consistency after a stop-start league campaign thus far - the Tallaght side have won their last five games and have gone ten games without defeat. While they’re still 12 points off the top, they are heading in the right direction.
Goalscoring continues to be their biggest problem and with only seven goals in their last seven league games, they can’t afford any slip-ups at the back.
Rovers boss Trevor Crolly will hope that the fit-again Mark Quigley can help to address the lack of goals up front after he returned to training following an injury lay-off.
Injured defender David Elebert will definitely miss the game for Rovers, with Jason McGuinness a doubt, but otherwise the Hoops have no new injury worries.
Crolly does not expect any repeat of the 7-1 scoreline from the Setanta Cup final and warned that Drogheda will be out for revenge.
“Drogheda are a good side and will come back at us. I’m sure it will be a good game. We are on a good run and it is important that we restart well having prepared correctly this week in the run up to this game,” he said.
While another 7-1 is highly unlikely, Rovers should still leave Drogheda with all three points, although they are likely to do so via a 1-0 or 2-1 win.
Verdict: Shamrock Rovers
St Patrick’s Ath v Bray Wanderers
League leaders St Pat’s return to action after the mid-season break eager to maintain top spot.
Three points clear of Derry City, with Sligo a point further back, the Saints know that any slip-up with most likely be punished, especially with the chasing duo both holding a game in hand.
A surprise 2-1 defeat to Dundalk just before the break brought an end to an impressive 13-game unbeaten run in the league but manager Liam Buckley is hopeful that his side can put that result behind them.
"The break was good to give some of our lads time off and the squad is all back in training now and look rested and ready to go again. We’ll need to be at it on Friday as Bray will be tough opponents," the Saints boss said.
"We had a tight game in their place earlier in the season and they’ve been going well lately. Jason Byrne has been banging the goals in and they had good wins recently against UCD, Drogheda and Cork. We know they’ll test us and pose us problems, so we just have to apply ourselves as best we can and hopefully we’ll get a result."
Killian Brennan, who has been one of the players of the season for St Pat’s, is unavailable as he begins a two match suspension following his red card in the Saints 2-1 defeat to Dundalk, while Saints’ boss Liam Buckley is also without the services of Jake Carroll following the completion of his transfer to Huddersfield Town.
St Pat’s have enjoyed a light injury list throughout the season so far and have no new concerns on that front.
For Bray, their recent good run of form has seen them put some daylight between themselves and the relegation zone.
Winning two of their last three games against fellow strugglers UCD and Drogheda, the Seagulls were unlucky to be edged out 3-2 by title chasing Derry in their last game before the mid-season break.
Manager Paul Devlin is content with his side’s recent form and hopes they can continue to put points on the board. "I am happy with our performances especially in the final weeks before the break.We have scored goals but then we have also conceded some," he said.
"We now need to move forward from here, we have a tough programme ahead of us and we hope to get more points on the board from the first phase, we need to push forward and we hope to strengthen the squad in the window, he added we are looking forward to the remainder of the season."
Devlin is also boosted by the return to fitness of several crucial players. Club captain Danny O'Connor and his midfield brother Kevin who both missed a number of games before the break are now fit and rested and eager to get back to action. Shane O'Neill and Eoin Hyland are also both back in training after recovering from hand injuries.
It’s too early in the season to start talking about ‘must-win’ games but for St Pat’s this is close. Two defeats on the bounce would dent their title hopes and this is the kind of game that any team with title aspirations has to win.
Verdict: St Pat’s
UCD v Cork City
UCD, desperate to bring an end to a four game run of defeats, host Cork City at the UCD Bowl.
A 5-2 defeat to champions Sligo Rovers last time out leaves the Students in the relegation zone, just ahead of bottom side Shelbourne.
However just six points separate UCD from visitors Cork who sit comfortably in sixth place and should Martin Russell’s side be able to claim a win, they could shoot up the table.
The UCD boss will have to plan for this game without the injury duo of Mick Leahy and Thomas Boyle, but he remains confident his side can get a result.
“This is a great opportunity for our young team to come back from their break and rediscover the hunger that brought us so many good results in the league," he said.
In the first round of fixtures UCD travelled to Turner's Cross and came away with nothing, losing 2-1. The Students took the lead on the night and missed a penalty before conceding in the last minute of each half to throw away their chance of taking anything from the game.
Cork City will be aiming to build on their home win over Drogheda United as they make the trip to the capital.
There was a palpable sense of relief around Turner’s Cross when City edged to a 1-0 victory over Drogheda for their first league win in four games. That result not only put some real daylight between Cork and the relegation battle, it also moved them into the top half of the table.
Manager Tommy Dunne believes this game is just as important as that match with Drogheda and is expecting a tough encounter.
“We all know that UCD away is a tough match,” he said. “Belfield is a tough place to go for any team, and we have not had too much success there in recent seasons, but we have to make sure that we are up and ready for the game. This is a huge game for us; we will have to fight and work extremely hard and do whatever it might take to get the three points.”
Cork's task is not made any easier by their injury list. The Murrays, Dan and Kevin, are ruled out. Colin Healy had a minor knee operation before the break and will also miss out, while midfielder Brian Lenihan has suffered a setback in his recovery from a groin injury and is also absent.
Striker Danny Morrissey picked up a hamstring injury in the win over Drogheda and looks set to be sidelined for a couple of weeks.
This is a tough one to call and you get the feeling that if Cork had a full squad from which to chose that they’d be the heavy favourites, but as things stand, a draw looks likely.
Shelbourne v Sligo Rovers
Bottom side Shelbourne start the second half of the season with a renewed sense of optimism but, in welcoming champions Sligo, have it all to do.
Rooted to the bottom of the table with just one win, and seemingly relegation certainties before Johnny McDonnell took charge, there is at long last a sense of hope around Tolka Park.
A 3-0 win over northside Dublin rivals Bohemians last time out gave Shels only their second league win of the season and moved them to within five points of the Gypsies and fellow strugglers UCD.
Indeed, the mid-season break may have come at the wrong time for Shelbourne and the fact that they get back to action at home to the champions will offer the sternest of tasks.
The break has, however, given several Shelbourne players the opportunity to recover from injuries and Glen Cronin, Brian Shortall, Robert Bayly and Rob Cornwall are all back in the reckoning.
McDonnell will be without Paul Crowley, who is due to undergo surgery on a hip injury and Dean Kelly, who had to leave the field with a hamstring injury after scoring twice against Bohemians, is likely to be out of action for a couple of weeks.
Champions Sligo may also feel that the mid-season break came at the wrong time for them. After suffering an alarming drop in league form that has seen what was once a commanding lead at the top of the table disappear, they went some way to stopping the rot with an impressive 5-2 win over UCD.
Manager Ian Barraclough is now preparing for a busy spell that will include Champions League games, but is confident that he has the squad to cope.
“It will be a challenging eight games in just over a month. There are some very tough matches in there, but we will utilise the squad throughout it and we’re looking forward to giving all we can in everything that comes our way,” he said.
Barraclough doesn’t expect an easy ride against Shelbourne either. “There is some of that new manager syndrome with Johnny McDonnell coming in,” he warned.
”I’m sure he will be looking at what he can do in the transfer window and put his stamp on things. I went to see them against Bohemians and he has united them and readied them for the task they face for the rest of the season. But we know exactly what we are facing and go into the game with the mindset of targeting a victory.”
Sligo’s task isn’t helped by the absence of some very influential first team members. Anthony Elding is suspended, with Raffaele Cretaro, Evan McMillan and Danny Ventre missing out with injury. Pascal Millien is away on international duty with Haiti, while Lee Lynch will have a late fitness test.
In spite of those absentees, this is still Sligo’s game to lose. They've kept three clean sheets in their last three away games and for all of the improvement to Shelbourne morale under their new manager, they still look vulnerable.
This may not be a classic and could be decided by the odd goal, but Sligo’s mean defence should give them the edge and if they can get an early goal, the game is there for the taking for them.