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Crusaders top of the league but best yet to come, says Richard Clarke


Digging deep: Crusaders midfielder Richard Clarke

Digging deep: Crusaders midfielder Richard Clarke

Digging deep: Crusaders midfielder Richard Clarke

Richard Clarke says Crusaders will aim to shake off the disappointment of their League Cup penalty shoot-out loss to Coleraine by rediscovering their spark in the Danske Bank Premiership.

The back to back title winners may sit four points clear at the top of the table but they aren't sweeping aside rivals with ease and the picture could have been different had keeper Sean O'Neill not saved late penalties against Coleraine and Glenavon.

And there was no shoot-out cheer for Stephen Baxter's side on Wednesday night when their luck ran out from the spot when the Bannsiders progressed into the League Cup semi-finals.

The Crues resume their title defence at home to Ards tomorrow and with Linfield waiting to exploit any slip-up the Hatchetmen know they must keep netting the victories.

"It's fair to say we haven't hit top gear and we have talked about our form as a group," said the former Glentoran midfielder.

"Although we are top of the league the boys know we can perform a lot better but what we are seeing is when a team has won back to back titles other sides are trying to counteract what we do and frustrate us.

"We have no given right to win football matches comfortably and in some matches we have had to dig deep and show our character - the comeback against Cliftonville is possibly the best example of that. That's a sign of a good team, when you can show some bottle when the chips are down.

"We will keep working very hard and hopefully we can play a lot better sooner rather than later. But when you are champions you are a big scalp. All the games will be difficult and we know it."

Clarke impressed against Coleraine at the Showgrounds this week but a youthful visiting side were left reflecting on what might have been after Lyndon Kane - who had missed the penalty in the league game at Seaview - slotted home the decisive spot-kick. "We did well to fight our way back into the game and when the match goes to penalties you always hope you can get that bit of luck you need but I think Coleraine deserved the win," added Clarke.

"They had a few chances in the game and from our perspective our boys performed very well. The young players have acquitted themselves very well against Livingston, Glentoran in the County Antrim Shield and now Coleraine.

"I think it's refreshing to see the young players so show much talent. Stephen (Baxter) has given them a chance and they should be proud of themselves.

"The manager has faith in them and they have shown they can do a job for the first team.

"I think young players have been given a chance at Irish League level and the new Under-20 league has helped the players - a development league that allows young players to show what they can do. I've played with many of them with the reserves and it's exciting to see them progress. It's nice to know the club recognises the importance of developing that young talent.

"It's unfortunate we have went out of the competition but the manager was able to rest players. The team took Coleraine to a penalty shoot-out so that was a positive. It was disappointing to lose but the manager said he couldn't have asked for more from the boys."

Belfast Telegraph