Crusaders give themselves a real fighting chance
Crusaders 0 - FC Levadia 0
New boy Andrew Mitchell insists Crusaders' European romance is far from over.
The Shore Road side last night battled out a tense scoreless draw with FC Levadia Tallinn in front of a bumper crowd at Seaview, but now must win in Estonia next week to prolong their Champions League odyssey.
With manager Stephen Baxter on holiday - he will be back for the return fixture - the Crues produced a performance of commitment and passion, with no shortage of skill either, but they just couldn't get the goal that would have made next week's task much more achievable.
"We're far from out of it," insisted Mitchell, who signed over the summer from Annan Athletic.
"We had plenty of chances, but just couldn't get the better of their keeper.
"He made one save from me in the first half, I don't know how he got to it. He was actually going the other way, but he still managed to get a hand to it.
"We decided to press them right from the start - and it worked. They are a good team. Perhaps we gave them a bit too much respect at times, but we are happy with the clean sheet.
"Yes, we are disappointed not to have won the game, but the boys are all buzzing in there. We know we can score over there and make it difficult for Levadia."
Another summer signing, Michael Carvill, almost earned the Crues the perfect start, cutting the ball back to Richard Clarke, whose drive was agonisingly deflected inches past the post.
Then giant defender Artsem Rakhmanau did well to flick the ball to safety when Jordan Owens looked poised to gobble up a delicious cross from the left from Billy Joe Burns.
Mitchell was right out of luck on eight minutes. His thumping 25-yard drive was somehow touched onto the crossbar by opposition goalkeeper Prit Pikker.
Levadia were totally hemmed in at this stage. The diminutive Paul Heatley created yet another chance following an electric dash along the byline. His cross was met by midfielder Declan Caddell, who forced Pikker into another telling save.
However, the big holiday crowd heaved a sigh of relief on 19 minutes
Rashad Elhussieny sent in a screaming drive from the edge of the box that Sean O'Neill did well to beat away.
Just when Ingemar Teever looked set to convert the rebound, defender Josh Robinson got back to head the ball to safety.
Normal service resumed at the other end when Clarke's teasing free-kick picked out the unmarked Owens, who failed to get a touch just when it mattered.
But Levadia were growing in confidence as the game progressed. They were gifted an opening on 37 minutes when Robinson and Burns got into a horrible mix-up, leaving Siim Luts in the clear, but the midfielder lashed his shot hopelessly wide.
Then, seconds before the break, Heatley was sent crashing to the ground by a wild challenge from Ivan Pecha.
Skipper Colin Coates elected to try his luck from 30 yards, but Pikker had little difficulty in smothering the defender's effort at the base of the post.
After a frenetic opening session, the Crues had to wait until the 60th minute before forcing Pikker into action after the break.
Former Linfield duo Carvill and Burns combined to slice open the Levadia defence but the keeper got down brilliantly to save from the lanky defender.
Minutes later, Craig McClean's vision picked out the impressive Carvill, but he too couldn't find a way past that man Pikker.
Little Heatley missed possibly the best chance of the game on 70 minutes when he was sent clear by a wonderful pass from Caddell, but the midfielder could only drag his shot wide.
Another new boy, Jordan Forsythe, was introduced on 76 minutes and he almost provided the elusive breakthrough within 60 seconds when he picked up a horrible clearance from Pikker.
With the goalkeeper stranded, however, he could only loft his shot inches over the crossbar and the game ended in a stalemate.
Crusaders: O'Neill, Burns, Coates, Robinson, McClean, Clarke, Caddell (Forsythe 76), Mitchell, Carvill, Owens (O'Flynn 85), Heatley. Subs: McKibbin, Stewart, Magowan, O'Carroll, Snoddy.
Levadia Talinn: Pikker, Rakhmanau, Laitinen, Elhussieny, Teever (Saag 85), Luts, Kruglov, Marin (Antonov, 61), Pikk, Rahn, Pecha. Subs: Shirokov, Rattel, Subbotin, Peetson, Artjunin.
Man of the match: Andrew Mitchell
Match rating: 7/10
Referee: Thorvaldur Arnason (Iceland)