Belfast Telegraph

Crues on high despite Molineux woe: Stephen Baxter

Big hand: Jordan Forsythe and Stephen Baxter applaud the visiting fans at Molineux
Big hand: Jordan Forsythe and Stephen Baxter applaud the visiting fans at Molineux
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

Stephen Baxter insists the mood at Crusaders remains upbeat ahead of the return leg of their Europa League qualifier against Wolves.

The Crues lost 2-0 despite a courageous effort at Molineux on Thursday night.

Wolves' second - which made an already hard task even more difficult - came with virtually the last kick of the game when goalkeeper Sean O'Neill's slip allowed Ruben Vinagre to score.

It was a bitter blow after a backs-to-the-wall defensive effort for most of the 90 minutes against a side packed with international quality, however Baxter vowed he would not allow the late setback to undermine his side's efforts.

"They are great at the moment - we had a chat afterwards and I told them how proud I was of them," he said.

"I played for six years and I've managed for 14 - that's 20 years' service to the football club - and that's the best performance we've given in that time.

"We've won some incredible trophies in the last few years and done some amazing things, but to come here and put on a show like that, when we could really have got hammered - it fills me with a lot of pride how well those players have played.

"I told them that - they are in great shape.

"Sean, the goalkeeper, is a little bit down, but he had a great game, and I won't let that small lapse take away from his performance."

Wolves, returning to the European stage after a 39-year absence, struggled to make their dominance count.

Crusaders held out incredibly for 37 minutes before Diogo Jota's superb finish finally broke the deadlock.

The English Premier League side forced 30 attempts, but were made to sweat as the score remained at 1-0 on a hot July night.

Then, with only seconds remaining, O'Neill dropped Joao Moutinho's pass and Vinagre slotted home.

It means Wolves take a 2-0 lead into the return leg at Seaview on Thursday, with the winners pencilled in to meet either Czech side FK Jablonec or Pyunik of Armenia in the third qualifying round.

Baxter said the focus is now on the return tie - and he admits it will take a similar performance just to compete.

"It was a big task to come here for a club of our size, to do what we've done, and we can be pleased with that," he added.

"It's important now that we put it all in perspective and get back to Belfast and work out another game plan, because it's Wolves we're playing.

"It will be a different game, no doubt - it's a small ground for them, a plastic pitch. We will also have to look at how we will change our game shape and change the style of play to try and attack them more.

"But when you're playing against £30m players who can pass the ball as well as they do, you have to be aware not to get too carried away with yourself."

Before the game, Baxter said a loss of three goals or fewer would be a good result.

The timing of the second goal was still a massive disappointment, but he was boosted by some words of encouragement from Wolves counterpart Nuno Espirito Santo.

He added: "A 1-0 score would have been better, so I'm a little bit disappointed, but by the same token I'm very proud of the players.

"I'm proud of how they held themselves and held the shape particularly well on the night.

"When the opposition manager says, 'Bravo, your team were superb tactically', you have to take that as a compliment."

Meanwhile, Jota was impressed by Crusaders' defensive resolve.

Jota (22) said: "We knew from the beginning that they would defend with a lot of men, trying to not concede.

"It was a good test for us, trying to build attacks with a lot of defenders. I think we got the result that we wanted, and in the end that is all that matters."

Jota's goal came just as frustration was creeping in among the home fans, with Wolves failing to make the most of sustained pressure.

Adama Traore crossed and Jota fired home with a first-time shot which left O'Neill with no chance.

He added: "To be honest I didn't know much about them before this draw, but they were very well organised, and they made it hard for us.

"They were very well set up, giving 100% in each tackle and each moment of the game. They did their best, but we were better and deserved to win."

Jota believes the Seaview return will be a different game.

He added: "I'm not sure what to expect - of course they are losing so I think they need to do something different, but let's see if they will."

Boss Santo has demanded more from his side following the victory.

"It (a second goal) makes a difference, no doubt, but we have to look at the game and what moment we are in," he said.

"Crusaders are well organised, they were deep and there was no space but we need to be faster, more accurate and sharper. All these things will come with work.

"It was tough, the players did a fantastic job. It was very hot and the idea of the game was there. I am proud of them.

"We cannot be frustrated. With set-pieces we must improve, we touched the ball but didn't have enough chances."

Meanwhile, Real Madrid defender Jesus Vallejo is having a medical at Wolves ahead of a loan move.

The 22-year-old is close to a season-long switch to Molineux, with a deal likely to be confirmed in the next 24 hours.

Vallejo watched Wolves' win over Crusaders and met his new team-mates afterwards. He will become the club's third signing of the summer after the loan moves of Raul Jimenez and Leander Dendoncker were made permanent after impressing last season.

Vallejo started his career at Zaragoza before joining Real in 2015, although he was immediately loaned back for the season and then spent the following campaign on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt.

Over the past two seasons, Vallejo has made 19 appearances for Los Blancos, scoring once. He helped Spain Under-21s win Euro 2019 in June.

• Former Northern Ireland international and Wolves manager Sammy Chapman has passed away at the age of 81.

He was part of the 1958 World Cup squad and spent two spells in charge of Wolves in the 1980s.

A Wolves statement read: "The thoughts of everyone at Wolves are with Sammy's family and friends at this sad time."

After retiring, he became a scout at Molineux before being promoted to manager, initially as caretaker, at the start of 1985-86 season.

Chapman was then reappointed after Bill McGarry's brief reign ended in November 1985 but was unable to save Wolves as they dropped into Division Four.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph