Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter predicted a daunting mission prior to this Europa Conference League second qualifying round second leg clash with Basel at Seaview — but his braves almost produced the shock result of the tournament.
The Crues may have been ushered through the exit door, but they went down all guns blazing.
It was always going to be a tall order because they returned from Switzerland last week with a two-goal deficit courtesy of strikes from Dan Nodoye and Adam Szalai, even though Basel had to play for just under an hour with only 10 men after Albanian international midfielder Taulant Xhaka had been dismissed.
Although Baxter said all the right things in the build-up to the game in terms of “giving it our best shot”, deep down he knew the Swiss giants were always going to be a class apart.
They have been regular group stage competitors and in recent seasons have beaten all the European big guns, including Manchester United.
But the Crues bowed out with their heads held high after 90 minutes of high-octane action in front of a bumper crowd.
Their task was made much more difficult when Liam Millar shot Basel into a first-half lead with a wonder strike, but the battling Crues replied after the break when Billy Joe Burns — the hero of the last round against Bruno’s Magpies when he grabbed a winning goal deep into injury time — slotted home from close range.
Baxter was so pleased with his team’s efforts last week that he nominated the same 11 players to start the game.
The Crues almost shocked their opponents after only 40 seconds. Burns’ cross from the right was only half-cleared by defender Michael Lang and, when the ball fell for Ben Kennedy, his low drive was superbly saved by goalkeeper Marwin Hitz.
Basel, confident and well-drilled on the ball, had the ball in the net on nine minutes when Millar picked up a pass from Fabian Frei before slotting past Johnny Tuffey, but the linesman’s flag was already raised.
Crusaders had to be patient in their build-up, but they certainly gave as good as they got against their illustrious opponents.
In fact, defender Chris Hegarty delighted the home fans when he tried his luck with an audacious effort from the halfway line after spotting Hitz off his line.
Hitz was then called into action on 26 minutes, getting a firm fist to a Kennedy free-kick after defender Andy Pelmard had impeded Ross Clarke.
But the visitors went through the gears as the half progressed. They almost broke the deadlock on 33 minutes when Darian Males cut the ball across the face of the box to skipper Frei, but his wickedly-hit drive crashed back off the crossbar.
It was the small band of vocal away fans — 200 made the trip from Switzerland — that were celebrating three minutes later when Millar cut in from the left and let fly, the ball arrowing into the top corner and giving Tuffey no chance.
It could have been worse. It took a spectacular save from Tuffey to keep out a 20-yard free-kick from Mohamed Amdouni on 44 minutes after Hegarty had flattened Szalai.
Incredibly, the Crues were back on terms eight minutes after the restart.
Jarlath O’Rourke’s speculative shot was deflected into the path of Burns and he touched home from merely six yards — the place erupted.
The silky Swiss were almost in front again just after the hour. It took a huge slice of luck from O’Rourke, who somehow got in the way of an Amdouni pile-driver from the edge of the box to deflect the ball inches over the crossbar.
Crusaders, now surging forward with confidence, went in search of another and Kennedy should really have done better 17 minutes from time when his scuffed shot flew straight into the hands of Hitz after he picked up a poor clearance from Lang.
Baxter’s team were given a standing ovation at the finish by their adoring fans — it was fully justified.
CRUSADERS: Tuffey, Burns, Hegarty (Owens 82), Lowry, Kennedy, Forsythe, O’Rourke, Winchester (McMurray 59), Larmour, Heatley, Clarke (Weir 72).
Unused subs: Pauley, Lecky, Ebbe, Patterson, McKeown, Robinson, Barr, Morrow.
FC BASEL: Hitz, Comas Feixas (Katterbach 68), Lang, Djiga, Millar (Ltaief 90), Diouf, Amdouni, Szalai, Males (Ndoye 75), Frei, Pelmard.
Unused subs: Salvi, De Mol, Lopez, Burger, Tushi, Kade, Chipperfield, Padula, Mendes.
Referee: David Smajc (Slovenia)
Man of the match: Billy Joe Burns
Match rating: 8/10