Battling Crusaders show their worth against Swiss kingpins
Stephen Baxter’s Crusaders bowed out of the Europa Conference League following this defeat at Seaview – but not before producing another heroic performance.
The Shore Road boys were always going to be up against it against the crack Swiss side Basel as they trailed 2-0 from the first leg at St Jakob-Park, courtesy of goals from Dan Nodoye and Adam Szalai, even though Alexander Frie’s team had to play for just under an hour with only 10 men, having Albanian international midfielder Taulant Xhaka dismissed.
Crusaders enjoyed one of their great European nights in north Belfast a fortnight ago when they defeated Bruno Magpies with a dramatic late burst – and they just fell short in producing possibly their best ever display against a side that feature regularly in the group stages.
Any hope the Crues had of repairing the damage in front of their home fans nosedived when Liam Millar shot Basel into a first half lead.
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But Baxter’s men came roaring back after the break and levelled through Billy Joe Burns – the hero of the first round win over Bruno Magpies when he scored an extra-time winning goals.
The Crues almost got off to the best possible start with Billy Joe Burns taking off on a surging right-wing run on 40 seconds before looping a great ball into the middle.
Long-haired defender Michael Lang’s clearance fell to Ben Kennedy, whose low drive was superbly saved by Marwin Hitz. The visitors had the ball in the net on nine minutes when Fabian Frei found Millar, who slotted past Johnny Tuffey, but he had strayed into an offside position.
But the Crues, patient and disciplined, were certainly not intimidated by their Swiss opponents. Defender Chris Hegarty was confident to break quickly from defence and, having spotted Hitz off his line, he tried the most audacious of lobs from 45 yards that fizzed just over the top.
The Crues threatened again on 26 minutes when Hitz managed to get his gloves to a well-struck Kennedy free kick after defender Andy Pelmard had impeded Ross Clarke.
Alexander Frie’s men were right out of luck on 33 minutes. Darian Males cut the ball across the face of the box to skipper Fabian Frei, whose wickedly hit drive crashed back off the crossbar.
But the 200 colourful visiting fans were dancing with delight three minutes later. This time Millar cut in from the left and let fly, the ball arrowing into the top corner, giving Tuffey no chance.
It could have been worse. It took a spectacular save from Tuffey to keep out a 20-yard free kick from Mohamed Amdouni on 44 minutes after Hegarty had flattened Adam Szalai. Incredibly, the Crues were back on terms eight minutes after the restart.
Jarlath O’Rourke’s speculative shot was deflected into the path of Burns and he touched home from merely six yards – the place erupted.
The silky Swiss were almost in front again just after the hour. It took a huge slice of luck from O’Rourke who somehow got the way of a Amdouni pile-driver from the edge of the box to deflect the ball inches over the crossbar.
Crusaders, now surging forward with confidence, went in search of an equaliser and Kennedy should really have done better 17 minutes from time when his scuffed shot flew straight into the hands of Hitz after he picked up a poor clearance from Lang.