Crusaders not giving up fight after suffering a brave loss
Skenderbeu 4 -1 Crusader
Crusaders' remarkable European journey looks to be coming to an end after Stephen Baxter's side suffered a 4-1 defeat to Skenderbeu Korce in Albania.
The picture was very different at the Skenderbeu Stadium when Jordan Owens netted a vital away goal in the 48th minute to make it 2-1 but the hosts scored twice in the last 14 minutes to seize control of the Champions League second qualifying round tie.
Baxter's side performed heroically to conquer Estonian side Levadia Tallinn in the first qualifying round but another fairytale is a fading dream after Mirel Josa's men showed their class.
The Shore Road side were greeted with a hostile atmosphere but they fought to the finish and Owens, the club's leading European goalscorer, now has five goals to his name on the continent.
Proud boss Baxter said: "We fought very hard and I am incredibly proud of the boys. We got the score back to 2-1 and it wasn't until the last 15 minutes when their class and superior fitness shone through.
"They are a very good side and it was a huge challenge for us on a big pitch in front of a 7,000-strong crowd but we gave it everything and when the tie is over and if we are defeated there will certainly be no shame.
"We gave a very good account of ourselves and I'm delighted for Jordan to get another European goal. Paul Heatley and Jordan had efforts cleared off the line and we worked their keeper.
"This has been a difficult trip for us as the opponents have been tough and the travelling has been time consuming while the accommodation and food has been basic but this has still been a fantastic experience for all of us and we are looking forward to having a real go at them at Seaview."
Crusaders were again without their skipper Colin Coates, who is on holiday, while Baxter restored Richard Clarke to the starting line-up with Jordan Forsythe dropping to the bench.
Forsythe was later forced off after coming on as a substitute and will miss the next four to six weeks with an ankle injury.
The breakthrough arrived in the 15th minute when Bakary Nimaga slotted the ball past keeper Sean O'Neill after a clever pass from Bernard Berisha.
Crusaders tried to hit back but Andy Mitchell drilled the ball over the crossbar after pouncing on an Owens knock down.
In the 34th minute it was double trouble for the Crues as they fell 2-0 behind.
Hamdi Salihi was left unmarked in the penalty area and his firm drive found a way past O'Neill, who will be disappointed he didn't get a better block on the shot.
The 31-year-old threatened again five minutes later but this time O'Neill made the save.
Baxter's words of wisdom at the interval worked a treat as the Crues grabbed a vital away goal three minutes after the restart.
Billy Joe Burns provided the assist with a super cross which Owens directed into the net with a powerful header.
But the Crues had another let off in the 60th minute when a Marko Radas free-kick rattled off the woodwork.
In the 76th minute Skenderbeu made it 3-1, Berisha finding the net after the visiting defence was carved open in impressive fashion. The home side's fourth goal arrived in the 83rd minute, Salihi netting his second with Bledi Shkembi providing the ammunition. A defeat for the north-Belfast side and an uphill challenge in the shadow of Cave Hill next Tuesday.
Skenderbeu: Shehi, Arapi, Osmani, Vangjeli, Radas, Progni (Latifi 74), Nimaga, Shkembi, Salihi (Abilaliaj 93), Hristov (Esquerdinha 79, Berisha. Subs not used: Llapanji, Jashanica, Dema, Abazi.
Crusaders: O'Neill, Burns, Magowan, Robinson, McClean, Carvill (Forsythe 58 - Snoddy 72), Heatley, Caddell, Mitchell, Clarke (O'Carroll 88), Owens. Subs not used: McKibbin, Stewart, O'Flynn, O'Hanlon.
Referee: Alexander Harkam (Austria).
Joe Gormley is returning to Cliftonville - but only to feature for Peterborough United in a friendly at Solitude tonight (7.45pm).
Gormley netted on his debut against Dulwich Hamlet last week and landed the man of the match accolade when United drew 3-3 with West Ham on Saturday.