Brave Crusaders are left heartbroken by late goal
FK Liepaja 2 Crusaders 0 - 3-3 on aggregate; Liepaja win on away goals
Crusaders were left shattered and deflated last night after their Europa League adventure was ended in heartbreaking fashion. The Crues were just seconds away from seeing off the challenge of FK Liepaja at the Duagava Stadium in Latvia but Arturs Karasausks produced the decisive finish in the 94th minute to claim an away goals victory.
Stephen Baxter's side had battled bravely to restrict the hosts to a 33rd-minute penalty converted by Giorgi Eristavi but there was to be one real sting in the tail and last week's superb 3-1 win at Seaview wasn't enough to book a second qualifying round clash with Lithuanian minnows Suduva, who shocked highly-fancied Shakhtyor Soligorsk of Belarus 2-1 on aggregate.
Eristavi's 33rd-minute penalty, after Howard Beverland had brought down Karasausks, rattled the north Belfast side but they had soaked up intense pressure until the 25-year-old Latvia international tore up the script. There was brave resistance from the Hatchetmen but Liepaja were a more dangerous attacking side in the second leg and their luck changed with only seconds remaining.
Karasausks had also scored his side's only goal at Seaview and the frontman's winner sparked wild celebrations among the hosts while Crusaders players were naturally stunned.
Baxter said: "It was a very cruel end to the game, it was heart wrenching and to lose in that manner, on the away goals rule with only about 40 seconds remaining, is desperately disappointing.
"The players were immense, their work rate and hunger was excellent against a very good side and while the first half was a tough period, they performed a lot better in the second half.
"We were desperately unlucky at the end and we felt that Paul Heatley had been fouled in the run up to their goal but that's football.
"It was a very impressive defensive performance from the boys with Colin Coates, Billy Joe Burns and Sean Ward immense, we produced a lot of top-drawer performances but we faced a quality side with a budget five times higher than ours and their jubilation at the final whistle showed what it meant to them.
"We felt we deserved to go through but we will have to take some positives out of it. We grew into the game and our goalkeeper Brian Jensen didn't have a huge amount to do.
"It was a very disappointing ending but we can be proud of our efforts."
Marks Kurtiss should have netted in the 21st minute but his free header inside the six-yard box missed the target.
The Crues rearguard cracked in the 33rd minute when Beverland brought down Karasausks and midfielder Eristavi slotted home the penalty.
Jordan Forsythe stung the hands of Liepaja goalkeeper Edgars Ralkevics in the 76th minute but five minutes later Karasausks came agonisingly close to grabbing the crucial second goal but wasted the chance.
In the 90th minute, Jensen made a crucial save to foil Karasausks but with only 20 seconds of the game remaining the striker delivered the final painful blow.
Gavin Whyte fouled Martins Kigurs and Karasausks struck in the 94th minute - with five added on in injury time - to break Crusaders hearts.
FK Liepaja: Ralkevics, Gueye, Strumia, Hmizs (Afanasjevs 60), Lebamba, Kurtiss (Kigurs 67), Karasausks, Torres, Keita, Eristavi, Tomic (Grebis 70). Subs not used: Sopots, Tomkovic, Klava, Ivanovs.
Crusaders: Jensen, Burns, Beverland, Coates, Ward, Brown, Caddell (Forsythe 59), Snoddy, Carvill (Whyte 46), Owens, Heatley. Subs not used: Dougherty, McClean, Kerr, Cushley, Suarez.
Man of match: Arturs Karasausks
Match rating: 7/10
Referee: Suren Baliyan (Armenia).