Mark McChrystal excited about making Champions League bow

Crusaders defender, Mark McChrystal believes the Belfast men have nothing to lose against Bulgarian champions, Ludogarets.
Crusaders defender, Mark McChrystal believes the Belfast men have nothing to lose against Bulgarian champions, Ludogarets.

FORMER Derry City defender Mark McChrystal believes Crusaders have ‘nothing to lose’ when they take on Bulgarian champions, Ludogorets in the Champions League first round qualifiers.

The Irish League champions were handed arguably the most difficult tie in Tuesday’s draw with Ludogorets being the highest seeds in the draw.

Indeed the Bulgarians, who progressed to the group stages of the Champions League in the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons, are ranked higher than Celtic and Polish side, Legia Warsaw who were paired with Cork City.

Stephen Baxter’s men have already began pre-season training in preparation of their European adventures, with the first leg tie against the Bulgarians to be played at Ludogorets Arena on July 10/11 and the return leg at Seaview on July 17/18.

It’s a massive challenge for the Shore Road men against a team which has dominated Bulgarian football since they made it into the top flight having won every league title since the 2011-12 season.

The Bulgarian champions also boast the services of midfielder, Jacek Goralski who is currently at the FIFA World Cup in Russia with Poland and experienced defender, Dragoș Grigore who has over 30 caps with the Romanian senior international team.

McChrystal, who recently agreed a new contract with Crusaders, knows the north Belfast club will be huge underdogs but he’s looking forward to the test and is hoping to keep the tie alive for the return leg at Seaview.

“It will be a tough game,” agreed the former Bristol Rovers skipper. “I think they finished in the last 32 of the Europa League last year so they have good pedigree. No matter who we got it was going to be a tough draw but I’m excited about it.

“You want to play against top sides and test yourself against top players in Europe so we’ll look forward to the challenge. At the end of the day we have nothing to lose. We’ll go there and give everything we’ve got and try and get a result.

“You want to test yourself against the best and playing European football is the pinnacle - that’s where you want to be and who you want to be up against and it will let us know where we’re at.

“If we go there and try and get a positive result and bring it home we can go from there. But it’s an unknown really and we’ve got to relish the challenge.

“Obviously they are going to be the favourites but we’ll go there and take them on over the two ties, do the best we can do and see where it takes us. You have to be positive towards it. Obviously they are a top team and everyone will fancy them to progress but our aim is to give it a good shot.”

The Ludogorets squad is also peppered with Brazilian flair under new boss, Brazilian coaching legend, Paulo Autuori and so McChrystal is expecting to be chasing the ball for long periods of the game in the searing heat in Razgrad.

However, the Derry man has confidence in the Hatchet men who netted 106 times on their way to winning the 2017/18 Danske Bank Premiership to clinch a potentially vital away goal.

“You might get an early goal and see what happens, you never know. These European teams are all technically very good and it’s possession based football. When you’ve got the ball you’ve got to keep it as best you can because you will be chasing the game for long periods.

“Over there I would imagine it will be high temperatures with regards to the weather so that will make it tougher again. We’ve got to focus on keeping possession as well as we can but you’ve got to be organised, hard to beat and go from there.”

Crusaders are bucking the trend and going full-time this season and McChrystal believes it’s the best move for the club.

“We’re back at it already because that game is in just three week’s time. If we go through or not in the Champions League qualifying, we’ll have another two European games which will take us into the start of the season which starts on August 4th this year.

“European football, the majority of teams are full-time. If you look at Dundalk or the last few years, they’ve progressed because of what they’re doing training wise and that what the aim has to be. To improve as a team in terms of competing in Europe.”