With the League of Ireland taking a back seat to the world’s biggest footballing event for the past two weeks the league kickstarted again last Friday night, hotting up the battle for title honours and European spots. Here’s a look at how each side in the top six of the Premier Division is doing this year.
Dundalk have progressed again this season under a very experienced manager in Stephen Kenny. For Kenny it has been a test to see how he can improve the team from last season when Dundalk surprised many by just missing out on the title after finishing second from bottom in the 2012 season.
He has done this brilliantly with a side that is not only solid defensively but has also been scoring for fun this season. Dundalk will compete in the Europa League first qualifying round against Luxembourg side AS Jeunesse Esch, giving the players a taste of European football that will improve their experience for the rest of the season as they push for the league title.
A 7-0 win over neighbours Drogheda, a 3-0 rout against Sligo as well as a 4-0 humbling of Cork City have been the stand out results in the league this year. They are my favourites for the title with the thoughts of not wanting to finish second again a huge motivation for the Lilywhites.
Since Caulfield has come in the team looks to have a totally different attitude about it. He has instilled a steeliness that was often missing during Tommy Dunne’s reign. City are now finishing off teams where last season they would have imploded or at best settled for a draw.
The expectation was to see City climb the table this year but to be in 2nd place only three points behind Dundalk and with a game in hand at this stage of the season is a bit of a surprise to say the least. The question now is can City sustain this pressure on Dundalk while being chased by St. Pats.
They have up until this point and with Danny Morrissey very close to being fully fit again it only improves City’s chances going forward. Six wins in a row with two clean sheets either side of the mid-season break sees City in with real contention for the title this year, only one point behind Dundalk at the summit and with a game in hand, this is exactly the position Caulfield will want his team in for the run in.
St. Patricks Athletic
They have responded well to the tagline of champions, only losing a solitary game all season. Without doubt still a challenger to retain their title, they are quickly becoming a dark horse with a lot of focus being placed on teams that are surpassing expectations. This will suit Pats as they hope to end the season as strong as they have started it.
They now also have European football to look forward to when they face Legia Warszawa of Poland. Their style of play being the most attractive in the league at the moment will suit them in Europe as they arguably keep the ball better than any of their contenders.
Returning from the break with a 3-2 win over Bray means Pats picked up another three points to pile the pressure on Cork City, now only three points behind the Leesiders although Pats have played one more game.
The ever expectant Hoops fans that will be demanding success this season or at least some improvement from their failure to finish in the top three in the last two seasons. They aren’t out of the running for the title yet though, only six points off the top and competing in a league we know only too well can change radically from week to week.
With half the season played, out of all the top four teams they are the one I can see dropping off at this point. They have showed signs of improvement from last season but big tests against Saint Pats and twice against Cork City have resulted in defeat.
They managed to pick up a win against U.C.D at the weekend but I can’t see Rovers finishing their season any stronger than they have started it as they seem to be struggling to get a string of results together that can give them the confidence in their ability to move up the table.
The departure of Ian Baraclough is the biggest story so far in Sligo’s less than impressive opening to the season which sees them well below where they would be expected to be in 5th place, nine points behind Shamrock Rovers.
In addition to a below par league campaign they’re out of both domestic cup competitions also. Sligo have appointed John Coleman as their new manager with an array of experience in the lower leagues of English football with the likes of Accrington Stanley, Rochdale and most recently Southport in the Conference Premier Division.
The Sligo board seem to have timed this decision well as the manager gets some time to formulate his plans for the season ahead. His challenge now is to salvage Sligo’s season through a sustained run in Europe as the title looks to be out of reach this year for the Bit O’ Red. A win last Friday over Drogheda still sees them look confined to mid-table mediocrity this year as they trail Shamrock Rovers by nine points heading into July.
Limerick have had a mixed opening to the season. Mid-table at this stage of the season sees a slight improvement on their 7th place finish last year but the talent that Limerick have at their disposal indicates they should be doing better against the top teams in the division.
They have lost to Cork City, Dundalk and Sligo already this term. However a 2-0 win over St. Pats in May seems to have lifted the confidence in the squad and Limerick came out of the mid season break on the back of three straight league wins including a 4-1 hammering of Drogheda.
This string of good results was halted on Friday in Turners Cross but without the distraction of European and cup competitions Limerick have an opportunity to play strong first elevens from now until the end of the season. However from what has passed already I don’t see Limerick moving much higher than they’re now.
Rob Lyons, Pundit Arena.