CRUSADERS bowed out of Europe last night, but not without a fight. A 4-2 defeat in Macedonia against FK Rabotnicki saw the Seaview minnows exit the Europa League.
The 5-3 aggregate scoreline will have restored some pride to the Irish League's battered reputation, following heavy defeats to Linfield, Glentoran and Lisburn Distillery.
Yesterday goals from Jordan Owens and Martin Donnelly couldn't see the Crues progress to the third qualifying stage.
Rabotnicki forged the best opportunities in the opening exchanges, with Vladimir Sekuloski almost breaking the deadlock as early as the first minute.
A misplaced pass by Eamon Doherty then set up Vasko Bozinovski, but Crusaders' man of the math Davy Magowan was on hand to halt the attack.
Aaron Black then squandered a decent opportunity for the visitors when he hooked a bicycle kick just over the Rabotnicki crossbar.
Stephen McBride was forced to block a shot by Wandeir after some neat build-up play by the Macedonians.
In the 20th minute Gareth McKeown cleared a goal-bound effort off the line after Keenan was caught in no man's land.
Soon after Rabotnicki finally got the breakthrough, arriving courtesy of a debatable offside decision.
But despite Crusaders' protests, Bozinovski tapped home to extend the hosts' aggregate lead.
Doherty then blocked another goal-bound effort as Rabotnicki laid siege to the Crues' goal.
The second goal of the day arrived in the 34th minute, with another controversial offside decision – this time Ze Carlos was on hand to score.
Black was then unlucky when his thunderbolt strike deflected off the face of Radenko Bojovic, leaving the Rabotnicki defender sprawling on the ground.
Crusaders boss Stephen Baxter introduced David Rainey and Jordan Owens at the half-time interval, with Johnny Magee and Chris Morrow making way.
Keenan was first to be called into action in the second period, smartly saving from Bozinovski.
McKeown and Owens then linked up with Donnelly who shot wide on 50 minutes, with the livewire winger firing a free-kick over the bar shortly after.
Declan Caddell then came on for Black in the 67th minute, and soon after Rainey should have reduced the arrears when given a decent opportunity, only to stumble at the wrong time.
On 70 minutes a Crusaders goal did arrive.
Donnelly's free-kick caused havoc in the Rabotnicki goalmouth, and Owens was on hand to prod the ball home.
Caddell was then fortunate not to receive his marching orders for a suspicious two-footed tackle, but referee Radek Prihoda of the Czech Republic only brandished a yellow card.
The European contest was over in the 81st minute when Rabotnicki extended their lead.
Nikola Gligorov swivelled on the edge of the box before cracking a superb shot into Keenan's top corner.
It was 4-1 soon after when Filip Petkovski picked up a loose pass from Donnelly before rounding Keenan and scoring with ease – the substitute then receiving a booking for taking off his shirt in the celebrations.
In the 90th minute Petkovski was then seeing red when referee Prihoda gave him his marching orders for what appeared to be simulation following a tackle by McKeown.
Crusaders would have the last say when Donnelly drilled home a late consolation in the 93rd minute.
RABOTNICKI: Bogatinov, Ristov, Sekuloski, Bojovic, Bozinovski, Savik, Ze Carlos, Todorovski, Gligorov, Bozinovski, Wandeir
Subs: Kmetovski, Dimovski, Muarem, Rodic, Silva, Da Silva, Petkovski.
CRUSADERS: Keenan, McKeown, McBride, Black, Magowan, McCann, Doherty, Dickson, Donnelly, Morrow, Magee
Subs: Hogg, Rainey, Melly, Caddell, Arthurs, Owens, McMaster.
REFEREE: Radek Prihoda (CZE)