Crusaders took 'moral victory' in Seaview defeat to Ludogorets, says Baxter
Crusaders 0-2 Ludogorets
The Champions League adventure for Crusaders is over this year. They will hope to be back in the competition next season but wouldn't fancy facing Ludogorets again.
The Bulgarian outfit, domestic title winners seven times in succession, were simply too good for the north Belfast men in the first round qualifying tie.
They netted two more goals last night at Seaview in a 2-0 win, adding to the seven they scored on their own patch.
Crusaders put in a committed performance and were unlucky not to score, but watching Ludogorets it is no surprise that bigger clubs around Europe are keeping an eye on some of their players who have become used to playing against the likes of Liverpool in the group stages of this competition.
In that context, a two-goal defeat in Belfast isn't too shabby.
"I'm very proud of the players," said boss Stephen Baxter. "I was hurt after the 7-0 defeat and wanted a response. The players were magnificent. Given their quality, it almost felt like a moral victory."
While Ludogorets march on in the Champions League, Baxter's side, thanks to new Uefa rules, have the consolation of dropping into the Europa League where they will face either Olimpia Ljubljana from Slovenia or Azerbaijan team Qarabag with the first leg next week. The Crues will have key defenders Colin Coates and Sean Ward back for that one.
The tie was obviously over before a ball was kicked last night but Baxter's call for his players to show some pride on home turf ensured an enthusiastic and encouraging start from the Crues with Michael Carvill firing wide from the edge of the box after just five minutes.
Then a certain Jody Lukoki started to come into the game on the right flank. Nicknamed 'The Son of the Wind' for his searing pace, the Congolese winger, who came through the Ajax youth system, proceeded to rip unfortunate Crues left-back Rodney Brown to shreds.
It was the defender's fear of Lukoki's speed that led to the opening goal on 11 minutes with Brown lobbing the ball over Sean O'Neill's head and into the net with the Ludogorets player lurking.
For Brown it was his second own goal of the tie having netted another one in the first leg in Bulgaria.
While it was a nightmare moment for him, the 150 visiting fans who took the crowd figure to 1,116 certainly enjoyed seeing their team go ahead.
Lukoki was causing havoc. He could have doubled his side's advantage shortly after but hit the post when surging clear.
He followed that up with a dangerous corner which fell to Georghi Terziev, whose effort was well saved by O'Neill.
On 32 minutes the Crues were forced into a change with striker Jordan Owens replaced by David Cushley. Home fans were hoping that the substitution was only a precautionary measure, such is the influence of Owens on the side.
As always, Cushley was lively in attack, too much so for the referee's liking when he made a challenge just prior to the break and ended up with a booking.
Early in the second half, Matthew Snoddy did exceptionally well to clear off the line from Marcelinho before, from the rebound, O'Neill again showed his quality, saving from the electric Lukoki.
And on 56 minutes with the Crues warming to a tough task, Jordan Forsythe powered a header against the bar from Ross Clarke's corner.
At that stage the Crusaders supporters were hoping for a leveller. Instead, Jakub Swierczok, who scored a late hat-trick in Bulgaria, smashed in from the edge of the box on 65 minutes.
To their credit Baxter's Irish League champions kept going with Ludogorets goalkeeper Jorge Broun superbly saving late on to deny Cushley a goal which would have been merited on the night.