Belfast Telegraph

Crusaders are hungry to give Linfield a dose of title blues

Relishing it: Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter celebrates a win over Linfield earlier this year
Relishing it: Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter celebrates a win over Linfield earlier this year

By Graham Luney

Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter is hoping fortune favours his brave men in the tasty Danske Bank Premiership battle with Linfield at Seaview tonight.

Both sides are in great goalscoring form going into the thrilling showdown in front of the BBC cameras.

While the champions thumped Glenavon 7-0 at Windsor Park, the Crues hammered in four second-half goals to conquer Glentoran 5-2 at the weekend.

David Healy's side feel they have real momentum even though they are playing catch-up on their title rivals.

And victory in north Belfast would leave the Blues four points behind the league leaders with three games in hand.

But the Crues are hungry to wrestle the Gibson Cup off their bitter rivals and Baxter accepts these matches can be decided by fine margins.

"I was pleased with the tempo of our performance against Glentoran and how we passed the ball," said the Seaview chief.

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"Our passing was first class in the way we worked the ball around the park.

"We have Linfield here next and you will see two teams who are playing very good football. They had a big win and it will be a big test for both teams in front of a big crowd and on the television.

"I'm always concerned when we get injuries but we will prepare for Linfield in the right manner, knowing we will need a big performance to win the game.

"Sometimes you need that break of the ball to work for you or a player to step up with a big goal. That works for both teams.

"These games are evenly balanced and they can swing either way, it can come down to who takes their chances.

"It's hard to call but we are up for the challenge."

Crues v Blues games are always tasty affairs but this one has an extra edge because both sides are looking good, even at this early stage of the campaign.

While it would be disrespectful to write off other teams' chances of winning the league championship, the popular view is that the destiny of the trophy will be determined by which one of these heavyweights knocks the other out.

And although this clash isn't a title decider, it can result in a huge psychological boost for one team while shining a spotlight on the mental toughness of the losers.

The positive from both teams' perspective is that they enter the lion's den feeling confident.

"Momentum is a great thing to have, and when we are scoring goals that builds confidence around the team," added Baxter.

"If you can't buy a goal for five weeks that's when you are worried.

"We're scoring, and I didn't think Glentoran cut us open other than the free-kicks. We're trying to keep the back door shut too. When you score five goals you're happy with that."

Baxter was full of praise for former Linfield favourite Ross Clarke, who produced a man of the match performance against the Glens with a goal and two brilliant assists.

"Ross has had a stop start career, he was at Linfield for a few years and it just didn't work out for him," he added.

"He had a stomach muscle and groin injury and he went missing for a few years with bit-part football.

"He's 26 now and last season we saw glimpses of what he's about, this season he has been superb from the start.

"He's been sensational and we knew he had that ability. It was just about getting a fit Ross Clarke out there, and technically, what we see in training and games shows he's a super player and he needs to keep that level of performance up.

"There's a lot of people here who would like to have a go down that right-hand side, as in all positions, and it keeps the players on their toes. They need to work hard to stay in the team."

Goalscoring certainly isn't an issue at Linfield either. An encouraging feature of this Blues team is the goal threat throughout the squad, and Niall Quinn joined the party when he netted in the 3-0 win at Carrick.

"It's nice to get on the scoresheet because I don't often score," said Quinn.

"I enjoyed that one. We have shown in previous seasons that we have goals from across the team.

"Shayne (Lavery) will score goals this season, as well as Andy (Waterworth), but guys like Mark Haughey, Mark Stafford and Jimmy Callacher have chipped in with double figures."

• Northern Ireland international Kirsty McGuinness added another trophy to her collection when she picked up the NIFWA Women's Player of the Month award for September.

McGuinness helped Linfield Ladies to the Danske Bank Women's Premiership by scoring nine goals in the month, as the Blues defeated Cliftonville, Comber Rec and Derry City on their way to the title.

Kirsty is the first player to win NIFWA's monthly award twice.

She said: "Scoring goals is always a bonus, but it's about getting the results and Sion Swifts pushed us all the way this season. We knew we needed to score seven in our final game. Once we got the seventh we didn't relax, we pushed on and got three more to make sure the job was done.

"It's not easy winning four titles in a row but we're pleased to have achieved it."

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