STEPHEN Baxter believes Crusaders are inching towards a genuine title assault – but just how close remains to be seen.
The Crues finished second in the Premiership two seasons ago, while last term they swapped lofty league positions for silverware as they claimed the League Cup and Setanta Sports Cup crowns.
The Shore Road men have bolstered their ranks over the summer with the arrival of former Ballymena United striker Gary McCutcheon and exciting talent Paul Heatley from Carrick Rangers.
This season the Crues have experienced an indifferent start, winning five of their 10 fixtures to sit fifth in the table.
On Saturday afternoon they entertain derby foe Cliftonville at Seaview.
The Reds currently top the Premiership table and boast a healthy seven-point advantage over their bitter rivals.
Baxter has demanded a “solid performance” from his players ahead of the acid test – one that will hopefully help narrow the gap.
“Cliftonville are seven points ahead of us, so the game is set up very nicely,” he said.
“We are at home and want the win to reduce that gap to four. It is a big North Belfast derby and the fans want the bragging rights.
“But I am not concerned with points tallies going into this game. I want a good performance. We played the best football of the season against Glentoran last week and I want more of that.
“There are 38 games in the league campaign, so it is a marathon.
“We must try and stay in the top four until Christmas and the New Year and then things will start to unfold.
“The league usually pans out after Christmas so we want to be in a decent position.
“But it takes lots of things to go your way. You need things to fall into your lap if you want to contest the title.
“We want a good run of games and some consistency – that is key.”
Reflecting on Crusaders’ progress in recent years, Baxter said: “We had a good rattle two seasons ago when we pushed Linfield for most of the way.
“We were close and faded at the end. But we have done well the last few seasons and we want to improve this year.
“I don’t set out saying ‘we have to win the league’. We try to improve on last season and we brought in one or two good players to try and achieve that.
“We need a decent-sized squad and we are getting there.
“This season has been fresh. Everyone is capable of beating each other and most teams are tightly bunched.
“There is a new flavour to it and things haven’t worked out the way people predicted.
“People usually see Linfield at the top and running away with things. They are mid-table but I fully expect them to make their move as the season progresses.
“You would have to say that the team that finishes above them will probably be champions.
Midfielder Chris Morrow misses Saturday’s game after picking up a knee injury in the midweek League Cup win over Carrick.
Club captain Colin Coates continues his recovery from an ankle injury, while Aidan Watson is also struggling with a knee injury.