Stephen Baxter is proud of his classy Crusaders
Crusaders 3 - FK Liepaja 1
Stephen Baxter labelled Crusaders' performance as "sensational" as his men eye up a lucrative Europa League second qualifying round date.
The Shore Road boys turned up the heat on Latvian side FK Liepaja with goals from Philip Lowry, Michael Carvill and Jordan Owens sending their fans home happy.
Although the visitors pulled one back through striker Arturs Karasausks, the Crues will still be favourites to book an outing against Shakhtyor Soligorsk of Belarus or FK Sudova from Lithuania.
"The performance was sensational for an Irish League team," purred Baxter. "We were playing a top team and we were really good for an hour.
"Yes, we tired because our fitness levels are still not what they should be. Liepaja's quality surfaced for a bit in the second half. We had to defend for our lives on occasions.
"And we were disappointed we conceded from a short corner routine, although the scorer is a good player. Make no mistake about it, they are a very, very good team and this tie is still wide open.
"It will be tough out there, but we'll give our best. We certainly needed a two-goal cushion to take with us."
Baxter raised a few eyebrows by leaving Howard Beverland, Gavin Whyte and Craig McClean on the bench along with new signing Jamie Glackin, but he handed two of his big summer captures, goalkeeper Brian Jensen - known as 'The Beast' in his Burnley days - and defender Sean Ward, snapped up from Linfield, a debut. The big plus for Baxter was the return of skipper Colin Coates, who hadn't played since February because of injury.
It was Paul Heatley who carved out the first opening for the Irish League side, dancing past Andris Raivis Jurkovskis down the left before whipping in a low cross that was hoofed clear by Deniss Ivanovs.
Crusaders F.C. boss Stephen Baxter discusses his side's 3-1 win over Liepaja and the impact his opponents being mid-season had on the game.Posted by Belfast Telegraph Sport on Thursday, June 29, 2017
The Crues threatened again on 13 minutes when Carvill's free-kick fell kindly for Heatley, who could only blaze high and wide.
The Latvians had another lucky escape when Dario Tomic's botched clearance broke for Carvill, but Oskars Klava came in with a telling challenge.
The Crues finally made the breakthrough on 28 minutes. Rodney Brown's long throw-in, which was flicked on by Owens, caused mayhem in the Liepaja defence and when the ball fell to Lowry, he fired a low shot past Pavels Dorosevs.
The Shore Road venue erupted again seven minutes later when Jordan Forsythe and Lowry combined to set up Carvill, whose low drive arrowed low into the bottom corner.
The visitors tested Jensen for the first time when Damians Kristians Torress tried his luck from distance, but the Dane shovelled past his post.
But it was business as usual for Baxter's braves after the turnaround and they grabbed a vital third goal on 55 minutes.
Carvill's corner was helped on by the head of Coates and the ball broke to Owens, who flashed past Dorosevs.
Liepaja hauled themselves back into the tie six minutes later with a wonder strike from Karasausks. The big striker picked up a short corner from Torress before thundering an unstoppable shot past Jensen.
The Latvians were out of luck four minutes later when Torress picked out substitute Marks Kurtiss, whose flicked header came off the crossbar.
And, as the clock ticked down, Jensen was forced into a wonder save, flipping a Kurtiss strike over the top.