Strong defensive display the key to Crues progression
Champions League Qualifying round two
KF Skënderbeu v Crusaders (tonight, Stadiumi Skenderbeu, 7pm BST)
FORMER Crusaders striker David Rainey says shutting up shop could be the key to progression when Stephen Baxter's side take on Albanian champions Skenderbeu in this evening's Champions League second qualifying round clash in Korce.
Following an historic win over Estonian champions FC Levadia last week – the first Champions League win for an Irish League side since Linfield reached the second round in 1994 – the Crues will be eager to prolong their fairytale start to the summer.
“It's strange going into games when you don't know much about the opposition but I dare say the lads have a real chance,” said Rainey, who spent eight seasons working under Baxter between 2005 and 2013.
“I think even the top teams just want to stay in a tie when they go away from home in the first leg. The away game is the important game and I think it's good to get it out of the way first because you know what you need to do when you go into the second leg. “They will be keen to keep things tight at the back. If they even came away with a 1—0 defeat, they would feel very confident taking a team to Seaview.
“You'd fancy them to score at home. A lot of the foreign teams hate playing on the plastic pitch so they could definitely get a result in Belfast.”
Baxter will welcome back midfielder Gavin Whyte after the 19-year-old missed the two fixtures against Levadia although skipper Colin Coates is on holiday and hasn't travelled with the squad. Barry Molloy, Emmet Friars, Timmy Adamson and Chris Morrow are also ruled out through injury.
Whyte was recently on trial with Premier League side Everton and Rainey believes his partnership with Paul Heatley will be the Crues' secret weapon.
“It has been unbelievable journey that Stephen has taken this team on over the last while,” he said.
“Progressing to the next round is special for a club like Crusaders and the style of football they play is just a treat to watch.
“They have players that can tear defenders apart and big Jordan Owens is going to score you a bucket load of goals when he's getting fed from both sides of the park via Whyte and Heatley.
“Stephen has made shrewd signings as well in recent seasons and that was the key to their success last year.
“Billy Joe Burns was a great bit of business and Michael Carvill coming in from Linfield will offer them something extra.
“ “Stephen has a great squad of players and they will be looking to push on and challenge for the League again. A run in Europe will give them great confidence ahead of the new season.”
The Crues received £140,000 for reaching the second round and although Albanian champions Skenderbeu are ranked slightly lower than Levadia, the financial incentive will be on Baxter's mind.
“Stephen will be rubbing his hands in a couple of months when they get the money through.
2That type of money might be the difference come January if he wants to improve his squad. Financially, it's huge and it's going to be put towards a lot of off the field things as well as the first team so it's a timely boost looking ahead to next season.”