Crusaders goalkeeper Sean O’Neill believes that victory over Portadown at Seaview on Saturday would almost certainly guarantee his team third spot in the Premiership – and European soccer next season.
The Shore Road boys hardened their challenge with a crucial win over Glentoran in midweek – a result that helped them leap over the Ports and into that third slot.
“A win on Saturday would send us five points clear of Portadown and, with only four games left, that’s a big gap to fill,” said the former Northern Ireland Under-21 international.
“We dropped out of the league race after experiencing a horrible run of results over the Christmas period. Before that, we were flying – we were even top for a while.
“Once the title race developed into a two-horse race, between Linfield and Cliftonville, our aim was to finish third.
“We are now on course to achieve that, especially after the win over Glentoran. It was a massive result.
“We’ve been involved in Europe every season since I came here and we want to keep that going,” said O’Neill.
“It’s a great bonding exercise, especially for any new players that join the club.
“To be honest, if we could manage to beat the Ports I would be very surprised if they could pull that back.”
Crusaders will be without the injured Declan Caddell, who damaged ankle ligaments in the win over the Glens.
But manager Stephen Baxter is gradually nursing back a posse of his walking wounded, including skipper Colin Coates.
“Yes, we’ve got one or two off our big players coming back, which is a lift to everyone at the football club,” said Baxter.
“Colin has made a return, along with Timmy Adamson, Craig McClean and David Magowan – they are back at the right time.
“We’ve now pushed ourselves into the right area to get into that third spot -- we must keep that going. There is a fresh determination in the squad.
“We have been on a good run at Seaview this year. I think we have only lost once. Having won our last three league games, we have got a bit of momentum going ahead of this game against Portadown, which is massive.
“From our point of view, it’s ultra important to make that four wins. Unfortunately, Declan will be missing and we have one or two other little injury niggles. I’m proud off the players’ efforts this season – they have been brilliant to a man.
“I would have thought the race for that third place is between ourselves and Portadown. It’s not going to be a fight to the finish.”
Ports long-serving boss Ronnie McFall, who is no lover of the Seaview synthetic surface anticipates ‘another battle’.
“You never get it easy there – but we must be ready to meet the challenge head on. It’s vital we get something from the game as we don’t want to fall any further behind.”
Recent P’ship form (latest on left): Crusaders W-W-W-L-D; Portadown W-W-L-W-L
Last 4 league meetings: Portadown 1 Crusaders 1, Portadown 0 Crusaders 1, Crusaders 2 Portadown 2, Crusaders 1 Portadown 0.
Prediction: Crusaders 2 Portadown 1