Easter brings a double-round of matches in the SSE Airtricity Premier Division and with it some clubs at a crucial juncture.
The first quarter of the season has been completed and patterns are emerging.
Derry City have become the title challenger many expected them to be. Shamrock Rovers have won five of their nine matches in an reasonable start to retaining their crown, trailing the Candystripes by six points.
They begin series two knowing there is a need to keep pace with the leaders even at this early stage. Last week's late winner over Shelbourne prevented Derry from having the chance to extend their lead to eight.
They are certainly two teams in contention for the 2022 title. Whether another side can enter the race will be greatly tested in the coming games.
St Patrick’s Athletic were unfortunate not to win against Dundalk last week with Eoin Doyle being denied by Nathan Sheppard.
The Saints sit in third spot and visit Tallaght Stadium tonight with just three points between the sides.
A win would propel Tim Clancy’s men into a challenge with the top two. Having earned a 1-0 win in the first fixture, Pat’s will not fear their short trip to take on the champions.
Derry City welcome Shelbourne to the Ryan McBride Brandywell. Having faced three away matches and recorded victories, a packed house is expected to watch the leaders.
Damien Duff’s side rued a late Aaron Greene strike in Tolka Park but it was a sign they are improving.
Several other sides still have plenty of time to make themselves contenders, but in a most competitive league, victories are proving a problem.
Dundalk, Bohemians, Shelbourne and Drogheda Untied all have a record of two wins from nine, leaving a congested look to the table.
Sligo Rovers have notched that third win, but their form has taken an alarming turn with two defeats and a draw with UCD in the last three games, all in The Showgrounds.
They had looked like being potential challengers but fell 10 points behind Derry in that week of poor results.
Liam Buckley brings his side to Oriel Park knowing a real lift in performance is needed. Having seen their season largely derail from the middle of last year, before a late upturn to secure a European spot, the Bit O’ Red boss will be keen to ensure their poor week doesn’t turn into something more significant.
As it stands, it certainly looks like the list of potential winners is dwindling.
At the other end, the teams at the bottom of the table have made up some ground from slow starts. UCD did pick up a first point on the road last time out but need to make a breakthrough with a victory. Two home games, in particular tonight’s clash with Drogheda, makes it a big Easter for them.
Bohs’ players look devastated by their late concession in Head in the Game Park last week after dominating the game. They do look primed for a much better second series as they welcome Finn Harps tonight.
Shamrock Rovers v St Patrick's Athletic, Tallaght Stadium, 8pm
The Saints and the Hoops have met twice already in 2022 with the President's Cup settled on penalties.
Those games have been very tight and that's likely to be the scenario again. A crowd of over 6,000 is expected for the meeting of two neighbours with ambitions on the league crown.
Pat's boss Tim Clancy is looking to repeat the win in Inchicore which he admitted was a pivotal one at a time it was needed: "It's another Dublin derby, there's plenty of them this season and obviously it's the first game of the second round now so we are looking forward to it.
"It was a really good game out in Tallaght in the President's Cup, it's going to be a brilliant pitch and atmosphere so really looking forward to it.
"We beat them 1-0 in the corresponding fixture at Richmond earlier in the season and it was a huge win for us.
"Rovers were very good that night as well so it's going to be a very difficult game but it's one that we have been planning for since the game on Friday so we are looking forward to it."
Jamie Lennon (foot) is recovering from surgery while Adam Murphy, who made his first league start on Friday evening, and became the club's youngest league starter in the modern era on his 17th birthday, will miss out with a hamstring problem picked up in the game against Dundalk.
Chris Forrester is available again after illness while Jack Scott has also returned to training after a hamstring strain. Paddy Barrett is nearing full fitness after an operation in the off-season.
Graham Burke will sit out with a short-term calf problem for the Hoops. Roberto Lopes returns from illness.
Stephen Bradley looks back on the first series matches with satisfaction ahead of the start of the second quarter of the campaign.
He said: "We're happy. We definitely feel that we’ve left some points behind. When you look at where we dropped points we can definitely improve in that aspect in the next round of games.
"But we’re happy because we’ve seen every week that we’ve got stronger and stronger, and we know with this group that they get stronger as the season goes. That’s always a positive.
"I think (St Pat's) will approach it fairly similarly to what we expected in Richmond. We’ve got to be ready for that. We saw on the night at Richmond that attacking wise they have some good players, and they can cause you problems. So, I expect more of the same.
"Hopefully we can get a big crowd out because it's two really important games for us (with Dundalk on Easter Monday) and they’re two games we want to come away from with six points. The home crowd will be very important in that. We haven’t been at home in a month so it’s great to be back in Tallaght."
Derry City v Shelbourne, Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium, 7.45pm
The Brandywell is the place to be in Derry as their winning run continues.
Buoyed on by a huge travelling support in Ballybofey, Will Patching's magnificent free-kick proved the difference between two rivals last week.
Cameron McJannett was the latest player to sign a contract extension at the club as Ruaidhri Higgins continues to develop a squad he feels can challenge for honours.
As leaders, Derry will be fancied to emerge with three points against a side in the bottom half of the table. Such tasks and expectations will be part and parcel of their tilt at winning the league this season.
Higgins, however, is warning against any notions that it will be routine night.
🎥 | Another sensational free kick from the Brandywell Beckham!— SSE Airtricity League (@SSEAirtricityLg) April 9, 2022
The Will Patching goal that all but sealed three points for @derrycityfc this evening 👇
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"Anybody who thinks that this is anything other than an extremely difficult game can forget about it," he began.
"Shels are a very well-coached, well-organised team and you only have to look at their results to see that.
"In terms of goals conceded away from home, there can't be any better records in the league, that’s for sure."
"We will have to be patient - all of us - players and supporters. They will be very hard to break down but they are also very dangerous on the counter.
"We have to be inventive and brave and use our individual qualities to try to win the game."
City came away from last week’s derby against Finn Harps with no new injury concerns and will have the same squad available for the busy Easter programme. Michael Duffy and Ciaron Harkin are the ones missing out.
Shelbourne boss Damien Duff said he is pleased to have almost a full squad to choose from ahead of what he sees as"massive three days" for the Reds.
"It's the first time we’ve had nearly everyone available for selection which is amazing really," Duff said.
"We’re looking forward to seeing the fans up in Derry and in Tolka on Monday. We know we will need them at times but the onus is on the players to get the crowd going too," he added.
Shelbourne welcome back Jack Moylan, JJ Lunney and Brian McManus who are all available for selection once more.
The Reds will be without JR Wilson through suspension but Duff says competition for places is fierce.
"There’s an opportunity there for someone else to come in and impress. It’s quite a specific position which Conor (Kane) and JR have obviously done well in but you seen last week with (Kameron) Ledwidge coming in and going well there when he moved into how players can adapt," Duff told shelbournefc.ie.
Dundalk v Sligo Rovers, Oriel Park, 7.45pm
The first meeting of these teams was a real drab affair played on a difficult surface in The Showgrounds.
It offered little in entertainment and knowledge of which side can be superior in this game. Dundalk have lost just one game this season, drawing six of their nine matches.
They'll be targeting wins in this series and will face a Sligo side lacking in confidence.
The turnaround in the space of a week has been alarming for the Bit O' Red when top scorer Aidan Keena was on the sidelines with an injury.
Keena, however, is available again, while both Robbie McCourt and Jordan Hamilton will do late fitness tests.
Looking ahead to the clash, Rovers boss Liam Buckley said: ''As a club we are in a top four position and will endeavour to improve. With five points separating six teams from third to eight, competition for European places will be immense, a challenge we are all looking forward to.
"Dundalk have also made a positive start to the season and have added a lot of new faces to their squad, they will also be looking forward to improving and achieving a top four spot. This will be a tough game for both teams. Oriel park is always a tough venue but one we enjoy going to.
"Our travelling support will be very important to us and we look forward to representing them with a performance they can be proud of."
Buckley's counterpart Stephen O'Donnell is now hoping to turn draws into wins and so propel his side nearer the top of the table.
"Yeah, it's a busy week with three difficult games but we can’t wait for them. We have the three S's, Sligo Rovers, Shamrock Rovers and Shelbourne all in the space of seven days.
"They’re games that we’re really looking forward to. The work rate and energy have been good from our boys so it’s all about trying to have more quality and being better when we’re in possession.
"Over the past couple of seasons, Dundalk have been off the top echelons of the table but we have high standards here and we have players with real ability. They just need to believe that but that will come with time and confidence.
"The quality and attitude they have shown in training every week is very good so we are just trying to get that correlation between training and matches."
"Sligo started the season very well but they found their last three games - three home games - very tough," said O'Donnell.
"Despite that, they’re a very good side, they’re solid and they have a good attacking threat. In their last away game, they were 2-0 up against Shamrock Rovers and they also scored three against Drogheda and two against St Patrick’s Athletic on their travels earlier on in the season."
Bohemians v Finn Harps, Dalymount Park, 7.45pm
Bohemians boss Keith Long was left frustrated by not taking three points last week.
Despite not starting well, the north Dublin side are still well-positioned to shoot up the table if they can find some victories.
It's the aim for the Bohs boss as Finn Harps visit tonight.
"We now enter the second phase of games and I believe every team with the exception of Derry are looking for a greater level of consistency in terms of results and performances," he said.
"The table is taking shape somewhat but teams that can put a run of games together will climb the table very quickly.
"We are only concerned with ourselves, however, and generating an increased level of performance every week, which will see us move in the right direction.
"Good teams find a way to win and also find a way not to lose when games are in the balance. We must do better on both fronts in this phase of games and for the remainder of our campaign.
"I don't believe we are a million miles off and there have been many positives in recent displays without us necessarily hitting the performance levels I believe we are capable of.
"There have been some good signs but we need to produce them over a prolonged period of time and not in moments."
Finn Harps enjoyed their last visit to the north side of the capital, securing their only win of the season against Shelbourne.
Having given Derry a stern test last week, Ollie Horgan is hoping to take the positives from that performance.
"Listen we did well in spells against Derry on Saturday but that's no good if you’re not putting points on the board. The likes of Shelbourne and Drogheda will put a bit of a gap between us if we don’t start picking up points soon.
"UCD will also consider themselves unfortunate not to have posted a win yet this season, and so it's on us to dig in deep now and start putting some results together. The potential is certainly there, and we’ve been very good in spells but we need to put together a strong 90 minutes to get wins in this division.
"Bohs will have their sights set much higher than their current position and will see us coming down as the perfect opportunity to get back to winning ways. It’ll be tough for us no doubt about it but we’ll give it our best and hopefully we get that rub of the green we’ve maybe been missing up until now."
Regan Donelon, Rob Slevin, Ryan Connolly, Yoyo Mahdy and Jesse Devers are doubts for Harps.
The hosts are without James Finnerty (knee) while Grant Horton (knee) and Stephen Mallon (ankle) are doubts.
UCD v Drogheda United, UCD Bowl, 7.45pm
Last week showed some of the best these sides have to offer in terms of quality.
For Drogheda, it was their heart and dedication to trying to secure points each week in a difficult league.
Having been outplayed for long spells against Bohemians, they stuck at the task and secured a point through an excellent Dean Williams goal.
The battling qualities are sure to please Kevin Doherty. He saw his side notch four goals against UCD in the return fixture in one of their best displays this term.
For College, they took control of the game in The Showgrounds for much of the second half, producing clever and patient football and scoring two fine goals.
The only regret was conceding an equaliser to Max Mata after Lorcan Healy had come out from his goal.
It's certainly a crucial game in terms of the relegation battle this season. A defeat for UCD could leave them with a big task to come in the rest of the campaign.