Belfast Telegraph

Sean O'Neill is vital to Crusaders' hopes of European progress: Baxter

By Steven Beacom

Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter has hailed the return of goalkeeper Sean O'Neill to the first team picture.

O'Neill showed his quality for the Crues in the second leg of their Champions League tie against Ludogorets at Seaview, pulling off a number of excellent saves that kept the scoreline down to 2-0 to the Bulgarians.

The Ludogorets coaching staff felt that had it not been for O'Neill's heroics they could have come close to matching their 7-0 first-leg success.

The 30-year-old is likely to be in for another busy 90 minutes tonight (7pm) when the Shore Road men take on Olimpija Ljubljana in Slovenia in the second qualifying round Europa League tie.

But Baxter has faith in his number one to shine once again.

O'Neill has admitted he found last season frustrating being out of action for long periods due to a serious shoulder injury and then the form of veteran Brian Jensen, who played a key role in the club's third title triumph in four years.

Back now, O'Neill will be an influential figure as the Crues target more domestic success, though first - due to new Uefa rules - comes another crack at Europe after the Champions League loss.

"I thought Sean's performance against Ludogorets at Seaview was a lift for his confidence," said Baxter. "It was a tough year for him last season coming back from injury and having to play second fiddle.

"But against Ludogorets I thought he looked very composed and organised and made some stunning saves. We needed that performance from him and we will need him again in Slovenia and moving forward this season.

"Sean is a very popular player at the club as well as being a quality goalkeeper."

The finances Irish League clubs receive from competing in Europe are immense these days. Should Crusaders manage to overcome Olimpija Ljubljana, their cash windfall from Uefa this season would smash the €1m (£889,000) mark.

Baxter, a shrewd operator on and off the pitch, is well aware of what the sums mean to his club who have opted to go full-time. He also points out, however, being in Europe is not all about financial gain.

"Every time we play in Europe we learn a lot, so the more we can do it the better," he says.

"In Europe you have to get everything out of the experience that is possible.

"You are playing teams that are better and so much bigger in terms of finance, and you learn so much. We have added things to our club on and off the pitch from our experiences in Europe."

On tonight's encounter, Baxter added: "In the first leg in Slovenia we know we are in for a tough match, but if we can get something out of it the return at Seaview would be very interesting.

"With respect, we could have been playing Nortel in Belfast working towards the new domestic season, so it's not bad playing against a high level of opposition like Ljubljana and getting another shot in Europe.

"I believe we will do ourselves proud."

Crusaders are without their leading man Jordan Owens due to a hamstring injury but, on the flip side, they have club captain Colin Coates and another important defender Sean Ward back after both were absent from the Ludogorets clash.

The aim for the away side will be to keep it tight in the Stozice Stadium.

If they can nick a goal at the other end to bring the Slovenians back to Seaview with the tie all to play for next week, it would be a happy flight home for the north Belfast outfit.

Belfast Telegraph

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