Final flourish just too late for battling Crusaders
Crusaders 3-2 Skenderbeu (Skenderbeu win 6-4 on aggregate)
Stephen Baxter's battling Crusaders crashed out of the Champions League at Seaview last night, but what a fight they made of it.
The Shore Road boys always had a mountain to climb against Albanian side KS Skenderbeu following last week's second round qualifying first leg 4-1 drubbing in Korce, and a 3-2 win last night wasn't enough as they lost out 6-4 on aggregate.
Even though the visitors had defender Renato Arapi sent off after only 11 minutes, it was still a big ask, especially as the Albanians deployed a series of time-wasting tactics.
The Crues managed to grab a breakthrough goal early in the second half through Stephen O'Flynn, but two defensive calamities ended their hopes, with Bernard Berisha and Lindon Lafiti capitalising.
However, the home team hit back with a double whammy in injury time as goals from Matthew Snoddy and Andy Mitchell clinched the second-leg victory.
"I'm proud of the players. I couldn't have asked for any more," said Baxter.
"They were magnificent and kept going right to the end. It was Skenderbeu who were happy to hear the final whistle."
Crusaders asked all the early questions. Craig McClean's deep cross caused panic in the Skenderbeu defence with goalkeeper Orges Shehi flapping hopelessly. The ball fell invitingly to Billy Joe Burns, who blasted over.
Shehi again had to be alert seconds later when he plucked the ball off the head of Jordan Owens following a delicious Michael Carvill cross.
Arapi was dismissed in the 11th minute following a horrible late lunge on Burns. After a quick chat with his fourth official, Cypriot referee Christos Nichlaides produced red.
Buoyed by that decision, the Crues went in search of a lifeline goal with Declan Caddell threading a super pass into the path of Carvill but Marko Radas came charging in to block the effort.
The Albanians at last posed a threat at the other end when Burns was penalised for handball, but Radas' 30-yard free-kick flashed wide.
Crusaders carried on where they left off after the interval. Owens was again out of luck when his looping header was gathered, but the north Belfast ground erupted in the 50th minute with that O'Flynn strike.
McClean's cross was met by Owens, who headed across the face of goal, leaving the former Institute man to bundle home.
However, Skenderbeu should have been level three minutes later. Bledi Shkembi's corner was flicked on by Latifi, leaving Hamdi Salihi with a tap in, but he completely fluffed his lines.
Latifi was fortunate not to see red when he appeared to headbutt McClean.
The visitors levelled, but the goal will give Crues skipper Colin Coates nightmares.
His short back pass to Sean O'Neill was gobbled up by Berisha, who walked past the stranded keeper before firing home.
Then, with 13 minutes left, Mitchell was caught in possession and Salihi set up Berisha to drill the final nail in Baxter's boys' Euro coffin.
But the Crues got themselves back on level terms on the night in the 91st minute when Snoddy's header from a Richard Clarke cross ballooned the net.
Mitchell then won the second leg seconds later when his 25-yard drive fizzed past Shehi, but the Crues bow out 6-4 on aggregate.
Crusaders: O'Neill, Burns, Coates, Robinson, McClean, Snoddy, Caddell (Clarke 73), Mitchell, Carvill, Owens, O'Flynn (O'Carroll 67). Subs not used: McKibbin, Cameron, Magowan, O'Hanlon, Friars.
SKENDERBEU: Shehi, Arapi, Jashanica, Nimaja, Shkembi, Salihi (Hristov 90), Berisha, Latifi (Progni 85), Esquerdinha, Vangjeli, Radas. Subs not used: Dema, Abazi, Lapanji, Abilaliaj, Lilaj.
Referee: Christos Nicolaides (Cyprus).