Belfast Telegraph

Fist pumping time for rampant Crusaders

By Graham Luney

So the big title showdown against Linfield is off for Crusaders this weekend, but their players should remember that they’ll pocket the same amount of points for winning at Coleraine tomorrow.

It’s that stage of the season — particularly when you are involved in a title race — that any slip-up could prove very costly.

Linfield underlined their desire to retain the championship by thumping Portadown 4-0 in midweek and now the gauntlet has been thrown down to Stephen Baxter’s men.

Alan Blayney’s international call-up has forced Baxter to re-focus on the Bannsiders, but they will be offered no favours in the north-west with Oran Kearney’s side hunting down a top six spot.

The Bannsiders are clinging on to a place among the elite and a home win will guarantee their place in the top six after the split.

Even if Kearney’s men lose tomorrow, they can still remain in the top half, provided Lisburn Distillery fail to beat Portadown and Ballymena United don’t triumph at Newry City in a four-goal swing against the Bannsiders.

It’s a case of ifs, buts and maybes in that sprint but the race for the title is more straightforward, though Linfield remain firm favourites with a three-point lead.

Defeat tomorrow at the Showgrounds would put a significant dent in Crusaders’ hopes. However, Baxter is keen to point out that his side is not an overnight success story. Years of work on the training ground have transformed the team into title contenders.

The improved form of 20-goal striker Jordan Owens highlights how the Shore Road men are becoming a more formidable force.

An Irish Cup triumph over Cliftonville in 2009 sent self-belief soaring to new levels and now, incredibly, a league and cup double is within their grasp.

“This has been honed over two or three seasons, this hasn’t just come about,” said Baxter. “It takes a bit of effort to get the boys to pass it and move the way they do.

“You need quality players and we have them. Against Cliftonville (5-0 win in the league) we got some pride and self-confidence back. It’s my job to take the pressure off the players and they just have to keep playing the way they have been. Forget league tables and statistics, just go out and play.”

Glentoran, eight points adrift of Linfield, are still clinging on, but any dropped points against Cliftonville at Solitude tomorrow and they are virtually out of it.

At the other end of the table, Newry City are fighting for their Premiership future and Pat McGibbon’s basement battlers will be hungry for maximum points at home to the Sky Blues.

Donegal Celtic, only two points ahead of City, have the weekend off along with Linfield.

The Lisburn Distillery v Portadown fixture is a top six belter. If the Ports can avoid defeat they are home and hosed. The Whites have to go for the win.

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