Chris Johns, Belfast (NIR)
Levadia Tallinn were held to a 0-0 draw in their Champions League First Qualifying Round match away to Crusaders in Belfast last night.
The hosts looked the more threatening side throughout most of the game, but Levadia withstood the pressure well and will be favourites to progress when the two sides back in Tallinn next week.
Levadia boss Marko Kristal told RdS after the game that he wasn't too happy with the performance but he feels his side have a good chance in the second leg.
Levadia made one change from their 3-2 win at Tartu, with Taavi Rahn coming in for Ilja Antonov. Ingemar Teever was the lone striker in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Marin Pavel and Siim Luts providing support from the flanks.
Crusaders took the initiative from the off and forced a corner in the opening two minutes, aas Richard Clarke's shot from the left edge of the box took a slight deflection. A minute later, Rahmanov had to head the ball behind for another corner as the hosts predicted aerial onslaught took hold.
Levadia's defenders were looking a little uneasy with the directness of the early pressure they were under, with Paul Heatley and Michael Carvill looking particularly threatening.
Pikker had to be on hand to tap another cross behind for a corner, before he was called into serious action for the first time in the 8th minute. Andrew Mitchell's long range effort looked to be sneaking underneath the bar, but Pikker got up well to tip it on to the frame of the goal. The crack of the crossbar shocked Levadia in to life a little, with Teever's left wing cross tapped out for a corner before Marin could reach it.
Jordan Owens had a shot blocked in the 10th minute, before a dangerous Billy Joe Burns cross from the right just evaded Heatley.
Declan Caddell became the first player to be shown yellow in the 18th minute for a foul on Pikk. The home crowd voiced their displeasure at the decision, a theme that would run throughout most of the game.
Levadia's first chance of note came on 19 minutes, as Teever failed to head home from close range following an Elhussieny shot that smashed back off the angle. Levadia won a corner as a result, but they failed to do anything meaningful with the dead ball opportunity.
Crusaders began to apply pressure again and Levadia were lucky that Jordan Owens' header at the back post from a Craig McClean cross only made its way back across goal and away from danger. Owens was in again at the back post four minutes later, but he was unable to connect with Clarke's free kick from the left when he appeared to have been forgotten by the Levadia defence.
A somewhat fortuitous effort came Crusaders' way a minute later as Mitchell's attempted cross from halfway down the right wing sailed dangerously towards Pikker's goal, but the ball dropped just over the crossbar when it looked like the worst was about to happen.
Crusaders' full backs were overlapping with great frequency, causing Pikk and Laitinen problems. Levadia on the other hand were struggling to get a foothold in the game. They were just about restricting their opponents to half chances, but with their own attacking threat still to rear its head they were looking vulnerable at 0-0.
On 29 minutes Rahmanov's flick header from Luts' right-side free kick didn't even come close to threatening the goal, while at the other end Pikk had to be on hand to deflect Burns' cross out for another corner.
Teever looked to be in a good position on 33 minutes, but he slipped when controlling a nice ball over the top from Kruglov.
The game started to get a little cagey as the first half bore on, with the Crusaders crowd unhappy at the physicality of some of the Levadia tackles going in.
Burns was unable to find Owens with another direct ball over the top of the Levadia defence, before Luts tried his luck from range without success after Josh Robinson had given the ball away cheaply.
On 38 minutes, the crowd were up in arms again as Owens was shown a yellow card for a challenge on Rahn that left both players clutching their heads.
Levadia tried to make something happen down the right with Marin, Luts and Elhussieny combining but it was a familiar story as the move broke down before getting the ball anywhere near the box.
An off the ball clash between Luts and Mitchell went unnoticed by the referee before the man in black was forced to halt play when Pikk brought down the tricky Heatley on the right edge of the box.
The resulting free kick from Colin Coates was low and straight at Pikker in the Levadia goal, and proved to be the final action of the half.
Crusaders were looking lively, but they were struggling to find the last piece of the puzzle to get past Rahn in the centre.
The second half kicked off and Crusaders were straight back on the front foot. Clarke fired a shot wide from the edge of the box on 46 minutes, before Kruglov tried his luck (all too ambitiously) from 45 yards 6 minutes later.
Luts tried to dance his way into the box but was unable to pick out Teever before being dispossessed. Luts was sporadically Levadia's best outlet, but Teever's isolation in the centre meant very little was linking up in the Crusaders box.
The second half dropped in to something of a lull as Crusaders appeared to be running out of steam a little. Their very recent start to pre-season looked to working against them, but Levadia's lack of momentum gave them a chance to recharge their batteries.
A good chance came in the 60th minute for Crusaders, but Pikker got down low to save Burns' effort from the edge of the box. Burns was involved again shortly after but was once more unable to find Owens with a ball over the Levadia defence.
Marin was replaced by Antonov on 61 minutes, with Elhussieny moving out to the right.
Antonov had a quick half chance but his shot was easily blocked on the edge of the box after Elhussieny had played him in.
Luts and Kruglov combined nicely on the left but again failed to pick out Teever, who was being easily restricted by the two centre backs.
Pikk was booked to the approval of the crowd after bringing down Mitchell, before Carvill cut in from the left after collecting the ball from McClean, but his curling shot was too close to Pikker to worry the keeper.
On 68 minutes, Carvill again found good space to control the ball well, before hitting a shot from the edge of the box that once more found Pikker. For all of their quick and direct play Crusaders were struggling to threaten from within the Levadia box. Rahn was proving to be a sufficient barrier in the middle of a defence growing in confidence as the game wore on.
Luts again worked himself some space on the left and this time managed to find Teever in the middle. The striker was under pressure as he rose to meet the ball, however, and his header flew over the bar.
Crusaders' best chance of the second half came on 69 minutes as Heatley ran on to a good Owens flick-header behind the Levadia defence. That man Rahn was on hand again to pressure the Crusaders attacker enough for him to strike his low shot wide of the far post.
Another Kruglov/Luts combination on the left failed to find Teever in the middle two minutes later, before Owens hit a tired shot well wide from 25 yards out on the right.
Jordan Forsythe came on for Owens a minute later as the hosts tried to inject some energy back in to their play.
A moment of madness! If Crusaders were struggling to create any clear chances via their own methods, they would have been eternally grateful to Levadia keeper Pikker in the 78th minute had Forsythe been slightly more accurate with his resulting shot. Under no pressure on the edge of his box, Pikker inexplicably passed the ball to Forsythe, who was lurking just 20 yards in front of him. The Crusaders substitute was only able to lift his lob over the bar, however, perhaps as a gesture of goodwill for the gift he had himself received seconds earlier. Whatever it was, Pikker's blushes had certainly been spared.
A minute later and another Luts cross was sent into the box. Teever managed to flick the ball on towards Antonov, with it eventually running out to Elhussieny on the right. The Egyptian winger managed to win his side a corner, but again it came to nothing.
Rahn was shown a yellow card on 80 minutes for a handball, before Stephen O'Flynn became Crusaders' second sub of the evening, replacing the tiring Owens.
Teever was then replaced by Saag with 5 minutes to go, with the Levadia frontman getting a good reception from the home side for his work rate.
Laitinen was somewhat unfortunte to receive a booking three minutes from time for catching McClean after taking the ball, with the Crusaders man appearing in some pain before eventually rising to his feet.
Forsythe's energy saw him get past Rahmanov down the left, but Rahn was on hand to head away once more.
A weak Antonov shot from long range failed to trouble the hosts, before a good low shot from Saag was saved low down by O'Neill after good work from Luts and Pikk.
The referee's whistle brought the second half to a close and meant Levadia go into the second leg in a strong position. Marko Kristal bemoaned his side's ability to use the ball effectively after the game, and he will certainly be thinking about solutions between now and next week to make sure his side use home advantage as much as possible.
Crusaders' tricky wing men and overlapping full backs had caused the problems they were expected to, but they found Levadia's defence, and Rahn in particular, in good form. Levadia became wiser to Crusaders as the game wore on and will feel comfortable in knowing what to expect next time out.
Pikker: 6 - The stopper looked calm in dealing with a number of long range efforts, but was very lucky not to have been punished by Forsythe.
Pikk: 5 - Struggled to deal with Burns and Heatley at times and picked up a yellow card.
Rahmanov: 6 - Looked steady enough alongside Rahn.
Rahn: 8 - A rock in the centre of defence. Rds man of the match.
Laitinen: 6 - Again, struggled a little with the overlap but did well enough to prevent anything dangerous happening.
Marin: 5 - Not much involvement. Substituted in the second half.
Elhussieny: 6 - Tidy enough in possession. Didn't create much but was reliable on the ball.
Pecha: 6 - Dealt with any central threat well and moved the ball on to his team mates.
Kruglov: 7 - Worked well with Luts on the left. A few tidy touches.
Luts: 7 - Grew into the game and sent in a few decent crosses. Levadia's best outlet.
Teever: 7 Worked hard but didn't have much support. Looked isolated on his own. Deserved applause for his work rate.