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Crusaders stars must raise bar or face axe: O'Neill

By Graham Luney

Sean O'Neill has warned his Crusaders team-mates they've got to deliver against Linfield on Saturday or risk being frozen out of a team with big ambitions.

The Premiership champions were held 1-1 at basement side Portadown on Saturday night, allowing Linfield to close the gap at the top to seven points.

And the top two meet at Seaview this weekend in a Tennent's Irish Cup quarter-final that doesn't need any more hype or spice added to it.

David Healy's side won in the league at the north Belfast venue on New Year's Eve and then floored the Crues in the County Antrim Shield decider.

There's a lot on the line this Saturday with the Crues dreaming of a first league and Cup double while Linfield, although not out of the title race, will view the Irish Cup as their last realistic shot at major silverware.

The Blues, buoyed by a Big Two win over Glentoran, hope Stephen Baxter's side start showing signs of fatigue but keeper O'Neill says his team-mates must stand up and be counted.

"It's dog eat dog and we know that if we don't perform there are players at Crusaders who will come in and do the job," said O'Neill.

"Players have got to have that ruthless attitude and say 'it's over my dead body if you want my place in a team that is going to win trophies'."

Baxter may make changes for the Linfield battle and will certainly demand better concentration from his defenders after the Blues displayed their set-piece threat in the Shield final.

Although a third consecutive title for the Shore Road men is within the club's grasp, the Irish Cup hasn't been seen at Seaview since 2009 and the prospect of becoming the first group of Crusaders players to clinch a league and Cup double must provide further motivation.

"It's the biggest game of the season for both sides and from our perspective we have always said that we need to perform better in the big cup competitions," said O'Neill.

"The club has never won a league and Cup double so that's a huge incentive for the players - to be linked with the likes of Linfield and Belfast Celtic. It would be a big achievement for this club and we will be giving it everything we have.

"But while the league is the bread and butter for players, the Irish Cup is a very prestigious trophy and we have fallen short on too many occasions.

"They have beaten us in the last two games and that will change their mindset probably but Linfield are a big club with good players and they were always going to beat us at some stage. For a while we gave them a torrid time at Seaview and Windsor Park so at some stage they would get some reward.

"These games are one-off shoot-outs and it's about who turns up on the day. We know we are good enough to beat everyone, we just have to perform to our potential. We made silly mistakes against Linfield in games against them so we've got to stop that. The team that makes fewer mistakes in those big games usually wins."

The Crues must raise their game dramatically after a poor performance at Shamrock Park, a result which offers some timely encouragement and hope to Linfield.

O'Neill added: "The performance against Portadown reminded me of the one against Carrick Rangers last season (4-3 defeat) but the positive is we got a draw and it could be argued that the Ports deserved to win the match.

"We were lethargic and I thought we looked tired at times. The pitch didn't help but it was the same for both teams and we have no excuses.

"You can't maintain a high standard and that intensity we were playing with forever, there reaches a point when at some stage you are below par and then it's about how you respond. There is some frustration after the draw against Portadown and the Linfield game will be a nice break from the league.

"In the past we have responded to setbacks in the right way and the Irish Cup game against Linfield is a perfect match for us to get back on track.

"There's a lot of work to do in the league but Stephen's (Baxter) message is the right one - you take one game at a time because Portadown showed what can happen against us and Linfield. We know what is at stake in every game."

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