IRISH LEAGUE: Stephen Baxter urges Crusaders to turn the screw on title rivals

Crusaders maintained their title drive with a 4-0 win against Carrick Rangers on Saturday
Crusaders maintained their title drive with a 4-0 win against Carrick Rangers on Saturday
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Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter has urged his players to turn the screw on their title rivals as they approach the ‘split’.

The champions can go eight points clear at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership if they can make it two wins in the space of four days against Carrick Rangers.

Baxter’s side eased to a 4-0 win over Carrick on Saturday at Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena.

Victory on Tuesday at the same venue would stretch their lead at the summit, and deliver another significant blow to their rivals’ title aspirations.

Crusaders have three games ahead of the eagerly anticipated split – all against teams in the bottom half of the table.

Tuesday’s trip to Carrick will be followed by a home clash with Dungannon Swifts on March 26, and then a trip to Ballinamallard United three days later.

“The aim is to have that eight-point lead intact come the split,” Baxter said.

“If we can extend that lead then that will be a bonus, but all we can do is look after our own games. What other teams do is out of our control. We can only dictate our own fortunes.

“We know we have to keep performing to the highest standard, because there are no easy games in this league.

“We have three fixtures against sides in the bottom half coming up, but they will be just as difficult as playing the teams at the top end of the table – if not harder.

“Carrick are fighting for their lives, while Dungannon are flying at present and have moved up to seventh in the table. They are on an impressive run of form.

“Then you have Ballinamallard, a side who we never have it easy against. So we are under no illusions.

“People keep talking about points and looking at all the various permutations, but all we are doing is looking to tick each game off as it comes and pick up as many points as we can.

“There is still a long way to go this season.”

Baxter was pleased to see his side rediscover their scoring touch with Saturday’s 4-0 win over Carrick.

The champions were three goals to the good within 30 minutes as they cruised to maximum points.

Paul Heatley bagged a brace while Jordan Forsythe and Jordan Owens also got in on the act.

There was one blot on the copybook, however, with Billy Joe Burns having a penalty saved by makeshift goalkeeper Brian McCaul, after James Taylor had been sent off.

“I was pleased with the first half performance, but the players then took too much time on the ball in the second half,” Baxter added. “The game was sort of over in the first 30 minutes after our quick start, so that was pleasing.

“It was good to get the four goals, and also the fact we didn’t concede. It was a good result and it is important we build on the momentum and continue winning games. It is always important to pick up three points in a game.”

Meanwhile, Cliftonville’s next two Danske Bank Premiership fixtures have been postponed due to international call-ups.

Jay Donnelly is part of the Northern Ireland Under 21 squad that will face Scotland in Paisley next Tuesday night, while both Levi Ives and Andrew Mooney will travel to the Netherlands as the Under 19s contest UEFA European Championship Elite Stage fixtures with Poland, the hosts and Ukraine. Both of the Reds’ games over this period – Saturday’s trip to Ballymena United and Tuesday’s encounter with Carrick Rangers at the Belfast Loughshore Hotel Arena – will be rearranged for new dates.