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Strength in depth key to title challenge, says O'Neill

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Number one: Sean O'Neill says Crusaders can target the title

Number one: Sean O'Neill says Crusaders can target the title

©William Cherry / Presseye

Number one: Sean O'Neill says Crusaders can target the title

Sean O'Neill feels Crusaders' strength in depth this season offers them a golden chance to grasp glittering prizes.

The Crues have failed to win silverware since lifting the Setanta Cup in 2012 but they are still fighting on all fronts this season after progressing to the semi-finals of the County Antrim Shield and last eight of the League Cup.

Stephen Baxter's side are only two points adrift of Danske Bank Premiership pacesetters Cliftonville and go into today's home clash with basement boys Warrenpoint Town with a spring in their step after back to back wins over Linfield. Warren Feeney's side were put the sword 2-1 in the league last Saturday and their spirits didn't improve when they lost out again to the Hatchetmen in the Shield on Tuesday night.

The Crues fought back from two goals down to triumph 4-2 and shot-stopper O'Neill feels his side have developed a new inner steel and resolve this campaign to go along with their strength in depth.

Long-term injuries to Paul Leeman and Chris Morrow have sparked concern among supporters but when class acts such as Gary McCutcheon, Diarmuid O'Carroll and Richard Clarke are often reduced to substitute roles, it underlines the considerable playing resources Baxter can turn to.

"Declan Caddell was suspended for the first win over Linfield and he showed what a good player he is in the Shield game, but that shows again how strong the squad is and the boys are feeling confident right now," said O'Neill.

"In previous seasons our squad has been a bit light and our title challenge has fallen away after Christmas but I don't think it's going to happen this time. Any other season we might have feared the worst after Chris Morrow suffers a broken leg but we have guys like Richard Clarke, Declan (Caddell) and Timmy Adamson who can impress in midfield.

"Timmy was man of the match in the first game against Linfield and he's done a superb job in the middle before, particularly against Rosenborg the first year we played them when he and David Rainey frustrated them.

"Given the squad and talent we have I think we can be there or thereabouts at the business end of the season. We've been the bridesmaids a few times but we are hoping for a very different outcome this season."

While the Crues fans are dancing in the streets, the Linfield faithful are feeling the pain and O'Neill has questioned whether the Blues squad is strong enough to maintain a title assault.

"Warren has let a lot of very good players leave the club," he added. "That is bound to have a significant impact and I just look at Billy Joe Burns all the time and wonder how anyone at Linfield made the decision to let him go. It makes no sense to me, meanwhile top Irish League players Jamie Mulgrew and Michael Carvill are not playing regularly enough for them."

O'Neill knows the key to success for the Shore Road side in 2015 is killing off the teams they are expected to roll over.

"We've struggled to finish off what you might view as the lesser sides in this league and it has hurt us big time," said O'Neill.

"Diarmuid (O'Carroll) made a very good point when he said Cliftonville took 34 points of the so-called smaller teams while we could only manage about 22.

"I feel we have a different mentality this season and we can go on a consistent run."

Belfast Telegraph