Colin Coates candidly admits Crusaders have felt added pressure this season – but insists they more than equipped to handle the heat.
The Danske Bank Premiership champions remain on course to defend their title this term.
Tuesday’s dramatic injury time victory over Ballinamallard United saw the Crues preserve their five-point lead at the top of the table with just five games remaining.
They are also in the semi-finals of the Tennent’s Irish Cup, with Friday night’s semi-final showdown with Glenavon firmly on their radar.
Stephen Baxter’s side had been forced under the spotlight following a slight stutter in their Premiership defence.
Successive draws against Warrenpoint Town and Ballymena United, coupled with a shock a 4-3 defeat to Carrick Rangers, raised some doubts over the champions’ mettle as they approached the split.
But two wins in the space of four days – against Dungannon Swifts and Ballinamallard respectively – has seen the feel-good factor return to the Seaview ranks.
“People have started questioning our character this season, but we have only lost three league games all season – and one of those was on the opening day,” said captain Coates, who headed home Tuesday’s late winner against the Mallards.
“I suppose there have been a few too many draws. We drew at home against Glenavon and Ballymena, and also away to Warrenpoint. And we lost that game to Carrick.
“The other side of it is that Linfield have been on a great run recently. They have been picking up a lot of wins.
“Every team has a little bad spell, and maybe we have had our blip.
“We have managed two wins on the bounce now, so hopefully we have come through that indifferent spell and we are back on track now.”
While the Gibson Cup remains Crusaders’ priority this season, Coates insists the Double has to be a realistic goal.
“The Irish Cup is always high on our list of targets when we set out at the start of the season,” he said.
“We always want to improve on the season before, and we are determined to retain the Premiership title. But we also want to add a cup to that and make it a Double.
“It is a massive challenge. There is a different type of pressure this season. There is more expectation, and also everyone is out to beat you because you are the champions.
“But we will take it one game at a time, and our next challenge is Glenavon in the cup. They are a very good side who have established themselves in the top three of the Premiership.”