EUROPA LEAGUE: Crusaders have slight advantage after first leg

Jordan Owens celebrates
Jordan Owens celebrates

Crusaders’ Europa League adventure gained a major first-leg lift as Philip Lowry, Michael Carvill and Jordan Owens each found the net for a 3-1 home advantage.

The only blemish on the hosts’ night was provided by a second-half strike to hand Liepaja crucial hope for the trip home.

The return to competitive action arrived 61 days after a 6-1 victory on the final fixture of the Danske Bank Premiership. That match against a Glenavon skeleton squad was played out under a sense of regret at missing out on a third successive title.

Two months on and Crusaders approached the first qualifying round tie with renewed optimism off the back of post-season reflection and pre-season rigour.

Debuts for former Burnley goalkeeper Brian Jensen and the experienced Sean Ward, the latter alongside captain Colin Coates on his return from ankle surgery, presented Crusaders a solid foundation.

The Latvians failed to significantly trouble Crusaders across the opening period with the exception of a late flurry towards the end of a first half effectively dominated by the hosts. Damians Torress forced Jensen into saves off long-range efforts, the second from a free-kick that the Danish shot-stopper pushed out then Kristaps Grebis blasted over the bar.

Liepaja arrived at Seaview for a 14th fixture of the club’s season, in stark contrast to Crusaders’ sole pre-season friendly. However, it was Stephen Baxter’s squad which showed the greater initial drive and desire.

Paul Heatley robbed right-back Andris Jurkovskis inside the opening five minutes to set the tone.

Carvill’s free-kick was attacked by Owens and Heatley cleared the crossbar. Carvill then latched on to a wayward defensive header but Dario Tomic raced back.

The deadlock was broken inside the half-hour mark thanks to Rodney Brown’s throw-in and a loose ball was eventually forced home by Lowry from a few yards.

Crusaders’ advantage was strengthened on 35 as a second goal in seven minutes cemented the hosts’ hold on play.

A Liepaja slip allowed Jordan Forsythe to collect a loose ball and attack from deep, with neat footwork helping him advance before attempting to connect to Lowry’s return pass. Liepaja managed to block the initial pass but Matthew Snoddy gained a touch and the ball dropped to the edge of the area for the alert Carvill to steer a slick low drive inside the left-hand post of Pavels Dorosevs.

The celebrations sparked back into life on 55 minutes - to kill off a brief Liepaja fightback - when set-piece success for a second time led to a close-range spin and shot by Owens after Carvill’s corner-kick was met by Coates.

Liepaja grew in confidence as play progressed after the break, potentially bolstered by the superior match fitness levels.

Arturs Karasausks had a superb cross blocked at the near post by Coates but the Liepaja playmaker secured his side a key away goal off the resultant corner-kick by picking up Torress’ pass and firing an angled shot from distance that flashed past Jensen and home off the underside of the bar.

The Latvians stepped up in search of another boost and came close when substitute Marks Kurtiss hit the bar with his dangerous header.