Coleraine 1 Crusaders 3
Crusaders are facing an injury crisis ahead of their top of the table clash with defending Premiership champions Linfield at Seaview on Friday night.
Boss Stephen Baxter is concerned about the fitness of influential midfielder Chris Morrow and veteran striker Davy Rainey who both had to come off early during Saturday’s 3-1 win at Coleraine.
Rainey looks extremely doubtful for the visit of the Blues after picking up a knee injury, while Morrow is more hopeful but says he has been having trouble with a back injury for the past fortnight.
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Morrow.
“My lower back is the problem and I felt it get worse during the first half at Coleraine.
“I’ve had a great season where I have largely managed to avoid injuries and suspensions but it would be disappointing to miss out on our biggest game in years.”
Morrow praised Declan Caddell, whose second half goals saw the Crues safely home at the Showgrounds.
“He hasn’t been getting regular football but stepped up to the plate when it mattered most after Coleraine came back at us,” added Morrow.
“He is a terrific player and his finishing was excellent.”
Morrow and Aidan Watson are the regular starters in midfield for the all conquering Crues who have now won 10 league games in succession.
Caddell said: “It’s difficult to get into the team because everyone is playing so well.
“We’ve been on a great run to take us to where we now find ourselves challenging Linfield and, while I’m pleased about that, it means I can’t break through.”
Baxter admits he was tempted to draft Caddell in after his brace against Cliftonville in the ten-goal Setanta Sports Cup thriller last Monday.
“Declan has to be commended for continuing to work hard and take his chances when they have come his way,” he said.
Caddell added: “It’s frustrating for me but Chris Morrow is probably the best midfielder in the league right now and Aidan Watson has been fantastic since he joined the club in January.”
Captain Colin Coates headed the Crues into a second minute lead at Coleraine and the visitors could well have added to their tally long before the Bannsiders eventually hit back.
Jordan Owens fired an effort over the top and winger Stuart Dallas was denied by keeper Davy O’Hare in what was a bright start for Baxter’s troops.
Parity was restored 10 minutes before the interval, though, when Gareth Tommons threaded a pass through for Darren Boyce, who retained his composure to slot past keeper Chris Keenan to record his 11th goal of the season.
The hosts might even have been in front come the turnaround only for Keenan to keep a Marc Mukendi effort out with a smart stop.
In the second-half, Caddell almost put the Crues 2-1 ahead with a blistering drive which Mukendi charged down and O’Hare tipped an Owens shot behind for a corner before Crusaders eventually regained their lead when David McMaster’s 59th minute cross was powerfully headed home by Caddell.
The midfielder made sure of the points — and the Crues’ European place — when he converted the rebound after Owens had sent an effort crashing against the woodwork.
He might even have claimed a hat-trick but for another save from O’Hare before fellow substitute Vincent Sweeney was off target with two late attempts.
Oran Kearney, reflecting on a defeat which consigned his men to the lower half of the table for the remainder of the campaign, said: “I’m disappointed for the players.
“They gave it everything but Crusaders were focused and more menacing in the box.
“We need to use the rest of the season to make plans for the future and work hard to ensure we’re ready for the challenges that next year will bring.
“We’ve had a good spell over the last month or two and we won’t just be switching off now.”