Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Crusaders are out to secure a place in history

Crusaders goalkeeper Sean O'Neill is set to host a three-day training camp for budding goalkeepers at Seaview.
Crusaders goalkeeper Sean O'Neill is set to host a three-day training camp for budding goalkeepers at Seaview.

Sean O'Neill knows Crusaders must rekindle the spirit of their Setanta Cup fairytale in 2012 if they are going to make European history with the club.

The Crues go into today's Europa League battle with FK Ekranas with a precious 3-1 advantage after stunning the Lithuanian side at Seaview.

If the Hatchetmen can finish the job at the Aukstaitija Stadium (4.30pm) it will be the first time a Crusaders side has progressed in European competition.

The opportunity to write a special chapter in the club's history is an exciting one but boss Stephen Baxter and his men know that a full range of kitchen appliances – rather than simply the kitchen sink – will be thrown at his side in the rematch.

The north-Belfast side must keep their cool in humid conditions but they face a full-time outfit with superior fitness levels who are thirsty to put the record straight.

Their pride was stung when goals from new boy Stephen Cockcroft, Jordan Owens and skipper Colin Coates fired the Shore Road men into a healthy lead before Aleksander Susnjar's 88th-minute goal, which could prove crucial.

Coates misses the away clash as he's on holiday in France but he's hoping his team-mates can make history in his absence.

Shot-stopper O'Neill understands his side still have a storm to weather but a repeat of their inspirational performance against Sligo Rovers in 2012 en route to all-Ireland glory should see them across the line.

"I'm thinking back to the Sligo game when we had to dig deep and record a phenomenal result against the odds to make the final," he said.

"Colin Coates scored an extra-time penalty down there and we won 3-2 on aggregate. Sligo's budget was over £1m and they were expected to hammer us.

"I don't think this team we are playing in the Europa League are as good as Sligo were but we still managed to get through. We played Sligo again in the Setanta Cup when they beat us and they were even better then.

"But Ekranas are halfway through their season and they will hope the early kick-off sucks all the energy out of us."

Baxter has reminded his players that this is a golden opportunity to make history but O'Neill is just thrilled to have something to fight for in the return leg.

"Had we won the first game 3-0 it would have been a bit of an injustice as they had goalscoring chances as well," he added.

"They keep the ball well but I just felt our more physical approach knocked them off their stride. I think the first 20 minutes are going to be vital. If we can keep things tight at the back we know we have pace in our team and we can hurt them on the counter-attack.

"Stephen Cockcroft has come in and he reminds me of Paul Heatley when he first came to the club. He's quick and can produce something special when defences are hard to break down."

Crusaders have been slow starters when it comes to the league season swinging into action but O'Neill believes a European triumph could change all that.

"You never know how a win in Europe could help us in the beginning," he said.

"If we can get through this round and play even better opposition then hopefully it will make us sharper and in better shape to start the league season in style."

The winner of this clash faces Finland's VPS Vaasa or IF Brommapojkarna of Sweden with Vaasa holding a 2-1 lead after the first leg.

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