Half time in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Northern Area Final sees advantage Crewe Alexandra going into the second tie at the Alexandra Stadium on 20th February. The Alex certainly rode their luck at times at the Ricoh Stadium with the Sky Blues captain Carl Baker hitting the foot of the post and goalkeeper Steve Phillips producing some stunning saves to deny Baker again, Gary McSheffrey and Stephen Elliott.
At the other end of the pitch though, I doubt there has ever been three better goals scored by Crewe players in the one game. Whilst Phillips was pulling out save after save at one end, Brad Inman twice and AJ Leitch-Smith scored quite sublime goals. Inman’s solo second will be our goal of the season after his mazy run took him past three players and AJ Leitch-Smith's cool finish with five minutes left was clinical.
Steve Davis made three changes to his starting line-up from the side that narrowly defeated Scunthorpe United at the weekend. Two were forced with defender Harry Davis unable to overcome a toe injury and Mathias Pogba away on International duty with Guinea. Pogba’s country faced Senegal in an International friendly in Paris this evening.
The other change was tactical with Chuks Aneke re-named in the starting line-up for the first time since returning on loan from Arsenal to operate behind Saturday’s goalscorer AJ Leitch-Smith. Young Max Clayton was the unfortunate one to miss out, dropping back down to the substitutes’ bench.
In blustery conditions, Crewe tried to get the ball down and play and it was the Railwaymen who made the more positive start to the proceedings.
After five minutes of some neat passing from both sides, Byron Moore was able to collect the ball and stretch his legs. He held off the intentions of his pursuer Gary McSheffrey before releasing the overlapping Matt Tootle down the right hand side. Tootle cut back to cross to the far post. It was in turn collected by Brad Inman and his lay off was hit over the bar by Abdul Osman.
Moments later, Aneke picked the ball up in space and so nearly threaded the perfect through ball to AJ Leitch-Smith but Richard Wood did exceedingly well to read the situation and prevented the danger.
Coventry were soon venturing forward and when they were making our centre-halves turn back, they confidently playing the ball in the direction of goalkeeper Steve Phillips or clearing the danger themselves. When McSheffrey was granted enough space to slip Leon Clarke through, the speedy Kelvin Mellor came across the box and performed an expertly timed sliding tackle.
On 15 minutes, the home side produced the best chance of the opening exchanges. Carl Baker skipped around Mellor to reach the by-line and his cut back was screwed wide by a well placed Clarke. That quickly inspired another Coventry attack by Dugdale stood firm to take a shot from McShreffrey straight in the face.
On 22 minutes, Ellis had to take control at a bouncing ball and he rightly headed over his own goalkeeper and behind for a corner. Crewe struggled to clear the initial danger and following a sharp turn inside the penalty area, Phillips did well to get down and save Stephen Elliott’s shot at his near post. The Alex goalkeeper also had to save smartly when Franck Moussa registered a shot on the counter-attack.
Crewe desperately needed to get their ball players back in possession and retain the ball for a spell. A couple of promising moves were halted by the assistant referee’s flag.
The Alex goal was living a charmed life and on 28 minutes, Phillips had to produce a stunning save to somehow keep out an effort from McSheffrey from almost point blank range. The veteran stopper showed incredible reflexes to keep it out and then had to set himself again as a follow up shot from Steve Jennings whistled past his left hand post.
Better in possession, Crewe did conjure up a golden chance in the 34rd minute. Having kept the ball in the Coventry half to give us some respite, Inman found AJ Leitch in space and in turn found Murphy. He clipped a ball into towards Osman, but he could only direct his diving header wide of Joe Murphy’s post. It was by far our best chance of the half.
At the other end, a well worked move saw the Sky Blues captain Carl Baker drill a shot a couple of yards wide. The Alex had to survive a game of pinball inside the penalty area. Thankfully, it came to nothing when Elliott fluffed his cross.
With the half drawing to a close, Coventry stepped up a notch and a dangerous corner from Baker corner missed almost everyone before a nick took it behind for a corner on the other side. From the resulting delivery, Clarke overhead kicked over the crossbar.
In stoppage time, an advantaged played for the home side, allowed McSheffrey to race away and through on goal but he couldn’t keep his shot down and it sailed over Steve Phillips’ crossbar.
The Coventry goalkeeper Joe Murphy failed to reappear for the second half and he was replaced by Chris Dunn.
Phillips, who was having an inspired night under the lights, produced another save of great agility to deny Elliott again. The Coventry striker was allowed to carry the ball into the box and he tried to use Dugdale’s body as a disguise and couldn’t quite believe that the Alex goalkeeper had read it to pull off a one handed save. To make it even more impressive, it seemed to take a slight deflection off of Dugdale.
Five minutes into the second half, Crewe broke with real purpose to take the lead. Murphy found Inman in space down the right hand side and his low ball went right across the box to Byron Moore. The winger went on a mazy run to carry it back across before laying it perfectly into the path of Inman. He took one touch before unleashing an unstoppable shot past Dunn.
Coventry almost hit back within four minutes but Phillips again produced another world class save. MCSheffrey released the supportive Blair Adams and he had enough room to produce a low cross in the direction of Elliott. Both he and Dugdale both got a touch on it and an unsighted Phillips had to demonstrate another quick reaction to get something on it. He did again moments later to deny a disbelieving Baker.
On 64 minutes, Osman had possession pinched from him and Coventry broke in numbers. The creativity of McSheffrey saw him wait for the supportive Baker to join him on the overlap and his low shot may have beaten Phillips for once but not the foot of the Crewe post. As the play continued, a wicked cross from Adams just missed the head of McSheffrey and about seven other cramped inside the six-yard box! Crewe were hanging on.
With just over 20 minutes remaining, Coventry introduced Callum Ball for Elliott.
With 13 minutes remaining, Brad Inman elected to go on an unbelievable run to score comfortably a contender for goal of the season or any season. The on-loan Newcastle midfielder skipped round one to race into space and with Crewe players moving in front of him all over the place, the Australian waltzed around a couple of channels before guiding it into the bottom corner. It was a wonderful, wonderful goal.
McSheffrey sent a shot onto the top of the netting from a free-kick before the match winner Inman made way for Gregor Robertson. Our former midfielder James Bailey also came on for the Sky Blues.
With five minutes remaining, Leitch-Smith produced a moment of clinical finished to put the gloss on a superb away performance. After Aneke found AJ on the edge of the box, his neat turn past Wood gave him enough space to pass it beyond Dunn and make it 3-0.
It could have been even better as well, because Dunn produced an outstanding to deny Aneke with a flying tip over.
Crewe looked like they could add more with almost every attack but there was one late scare when Leon Clarke headed a cross shot just wide. The perfectionist Phillips was livid and he and his team-mates’ deserved their clean-sheet.