Crusaders can cope with title pressure, insists Baxter
Stephen Baxter is confident his Crusaders players can rise to the occasion in the mouthwatering title showdown against Linfield at Windsor Park tomorrow. The Danske Bank Premiership's top two will go to war with title dreams on the line and the pressure facing the players couldn't be more intense.
An away victory would leave the champions on the brink of securing a hat-trick of Gibson Cup triumphs - an astonishing achievement for the Shore Road club.
But the Hatchetmen must fight off a ferocious challenge from Linfield, who know that a home success would slash the lead at the top to only one point with four games remaining.
David Healy's side have also enjoyed plenty of joy against the Crues this campaign, conquering them in the County Antrim Shield final and remaining unbeaten in five meetings.
The north Belfast men, however, would love to win this one as a seven-point lead would put the champagne on ice at Seaview.
Crusaders' mental toughness will be tested and the players will need to rediscover their spark after a disappointing performance in the 1-0 defeat at Coleraine in their last outing on March 25.
The heat is on all the players and, as the cliché goes, it's a time for cool heads, but Baxter is confident his men will stand up and be counted.
"I think you always have to have faith the players will perform," said the Crues boss.
"They are all very talented players in their own right and they have been there and done it.
"They have won big games of football and they need all that experience.
"At this stage of the season, how they handle the pressure is key.
"There is no bigger game than this in terms of the title race. If we win the match then it's very difficult to see how Linfield could come back into it.
"We found ourselves in a similar position last year only the gap was a bit bigger, five points, and we managed to win the game at Seaview, and it's these moments that you prepare the whole season for.
"You work hard to put yourself in this position and both teams know it's a big game of football.
"Linfield are on a great run and this is a game which features the two stand-out teams of the league so it should be very exciting."
The Blues are expected to have an attacking mindset, knowing that the only result that gives them a realistic chance of still lifting the glittering prize is a victory.
Baxter added: "I'm not really sure how Linfield will play as I'm more concerned with our tactics, but they do need to win the game and, quite rightly, that's the noises coming from them.
"It would be a big ask to come back from seven points behind with only four games remaining."
Crusaders will look to frustrate the hosts as the longer the game goes on, the more risks the Blues will take, knowing they need to establish a lead.
An early goal will be high up on Linfield's wishlist and they have enjoyed success from set-pieces against the Crues, who are missing their injured skipper Colin Coates.
Coates is a huge loss, but the Crues still have enough quality and experience to get the job done - provided the players show their class.
"These games are so tight and on a knife-edge that what you are looking for is a stand-out player capable of producing something special to win a game," added Baxter.
"There could be a sending off or penalty kick which changes everything, but they have the slight edge in the sense that they are unbeaten against us this season.
"With those five non-defeats it's up to us to reverse that trend and there is no better time than on this occasion. There's always a big build-up with the ifs, buts and maybes thrown in, but the bounce of the ball can go for you or against you, or you could be hit with a sucker punch.
"That's why our game is so brilliant to watch and you have the two best teams in the league well prepared and hoping to get the victory.
"Although we haven't tasted victory against Linfield this season, there hasn't been a lot between the sides and those games will have no bearing on this meeting."
Crusaders will come up against a Linfield side desperate to blow the race for the Gibson Cup wide open and that's how it should be.
League titles aren't handed to you easily, they need to be earned.