Belfast Telegraph

Crusaders chief Stephen Baxter insists: We can handle the heat

By Graham Luney

Just when it appeared that red and black ribbons were being wrapped around the Gibson Cup, we have a title race again.

Crusaders may still be red-hot favourites to win their first title in 18 years but Linfield have cranked up the pressure a little.

Trailing by nine points going into the split, the Blues' title hopes appeared to be collapsing quicker than the Kop Stand on poor foundations but Tuesday's results mean they live to fight another day.

The picture has changed now. Linfield's big win at the Oval over Glentoran gives them fresh momentum when they desperately needed it, while Crusaders' surprise 1-0 defeat at Portadown has injected a few more nerves into their camp.

Warren Feeney's side have closed the gap to six points and they will still believe as both sides still have to play each other along with three other huge battles.

It's all about handling the pressure now and there is less heat on the Blues as they are the underdogs snapping away at the heels of a team who are expected to finish the job.

Crusaders players feel the weight of expectation on their shoulders but their vastly superior goal difference could prove decisive and perhaps that would be a fitting reward for their attacking prowess this season.

Stephen Baxter's side must now survive a Cliftonville backlash at Solitude on Saturday after the Reds were humbled 5-0 by Glenavon.

Tommy Breslin's men may be outgoing champions but they will want to make a point to their neighbours while rekindling their European hopes.

Linfield, who take on Glenavon at the Ballymena Showgrounds on Saturday, have the wind at their backs while Crusaders are feeling the rain on their face but fear of failure is not an option for the league leaders.

They simply have to go out and show how much they want to be champions.

Baxter, who knows all about the cut and thrust of a title run-in from his playing days with Linfield and Crusaders, admits the race for the title is a huge mental as well as physical test.

"You are preparing for every game and you could be tempted to say the football goes out the window," said the Crues chief.

"Players start to play on memory and then we have to sit the boys down and say, 'play like this, the way you have been doing'.

"Players do things a bit differently and that could be down to a little pressure and you have to deal with that.

"It's the same for everybody. Linfield have now got nothing to lose. They'll have a charge at this and we have to get our heads around what we have to do and get those two wins we need.

"But if you had said to me six weeks ago there are four games left and you are ahead by six points I would have broken your arm off for that.

"Cliftonville will be an incredibly tough match but Glenavon are playing out of their skin and they have an eye on the European prize. Teams still have a lot to play for and that makes this game so magnificent."

The rearranged clash between the Crues and Blues may be played at the Oval but two wins from their last four games will see Crusaders home.

One thing is certain - panicking will get them nowhere.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph