CRUSADERS 3 FK EKRANAS 1
With manager Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter enjoying a sunshine break in Portugal, his team roared past the challenge of FK Ekranas in the Europa League first round at Seaview.
Goals from new signing Stephen Cockcroft, Jordan Owens and Colin Coates almost certainly makes next week’s return leg in Lithuania something of a formality, even though the visitors grabbed a late consolation through Aleksandar Susnjar.
Baxter will be back for that game on July 10, but his boys did all the hard work in front of their home fans and are now on course to qualify for round two for the first time in the club’s history.
Crusaders should really have forged in front on 12 minutes. Declan Caddell threaded a delicious pass into the path of Paul Heatley, but his shot crashed off the legs of goalkeeper Kornelijus legs of Timofeyevas.
The home team broke the deadlock on 23 minutes. Paul Heatley sent Declan Caddell clear and managed he bundle his way past Timofeyevas, but totally miscued his shot. The alert Cockcroft snapped up the opportunity to tap home is first goal for the club.
FK Ekranas attempted to repair the damage when Elivelto Ribeiro Dantas met an Edgaras Baranauskas corner kick which brought a magnificent response from Sean O’Neill, the keeper managing to finger-tip the ball over the crossbar.
Seconds later, O’Neill repeated the act this time flipping a Aivaras Meskinis over the top from another Baranauskas corner.
But the home fans were on their feet again two minutes before the interval when big Owens was presented with a gift.
The 21-year-old goalkeeper Timofeyevas completely misjudged a Craig McClean looping cross, leaving the big 24-year-old with the simplest of headers.
The Lithuanians almost reduced the deficit on the stroke of half-time when Rytis Pilotas’ 20 yard free kick rapped against the post with O’Neill totally beaten.
FK Ekranas came agonisingly close again three minutes after the break. Substitute Rokas Stanulevicius whipped over a left win corner kick which was met by the towering Susnjar, whose header was cleared off the line by Chris Morrow.
But Crusaders grabbed the third goal on 57 minutes when Morrow’s shot from the edge of the box was beaten out by Timofeyevas and Coates popped up to head home the rebound.
Ekrans hit a late consolation when Susnjar headed home a Dovydas Norvilas corner kick two minutes rom time.
Crusaders: O’Neill, Burns, Robinson, Coates, McClean, Morrow, Caddell, Clarke, Heatley, Cockcroft (O’Carroll 78), Owens (Adamson 85).
Subs: McCrea, Magowan, Leeman, Snoddy,McCutcheon.
FK Ekranas: Timofeyevas, Meskinis (Tamulevicius 69), Girdvainis, Susnjar, Petranuskas, Baranauskas (Dapkus 78), Norvilas, Pilotas, Salamanavicius (Stanulevicius 46), Kochanauskas, Dantas.
Subs: Zukauskas, Duda, Sig Urbys, S Urbys.
Referee: J E Fernandez (Spain).