Just when you thought that Crewe Alexandra had turned a corner with two hard fought victories against Preston North End and Bristol City, the unpredictability of our season continued with a third 3-0 home defeat to a hard working Stevenage side.
Over the last two results, the Crewe defence had earned praise for two clean-sheets but in the opening 20 minutes, we just didn’t get to grips with Luke Freeman, Francois Zoko and Filipe Morais. Their pace and directness in the final third had us on the back four and after Morais had raced clear to calmly put the visitors ahead after 11 minutes, there was a certain anxiety in our defending.
We failed to get a grip of those probing three and after failing to clear our lines two minutes later Freeman’s drilled shot across goal seem to hit a body before bouncing over the line.
Then on 20 minutes, Morais punished a stray header from Ellis to curl an inch perfect shot from the edge of the box past a helpless Steve Phillips.
Crewe, who had battled to the death to earn three points against Bristol City in stoppage time on Saturday, only made one change from the side with Olive Turton ruled out late due to a hip injury. Fellow youngster Liam Nolan stepped in to mark his full debut after previously getting on the pitch away at Preston.
Nolan was neat and tidy in his play and certainly didn’t hide in difficult circumstances on his debut. His range of passing was good enough and he was competitive as anyone against a Stevenage side who worked tirelessly to pressurise us into mistakes on the ball.
After Simon Heslop was booked for a challenge on the former Stevenage man Anthony Grant, Crewe were undone too easily from a long ball up through the centre of the pitch and after Zoko had got a touch, Morais ran clean through on goal. He showed great composure to cleverly dummy to make Phillips commit himself and he simply lifted into the net for the opener.
It got doubly worse two minutes later, Dugdale was initially left trailing by the speed of Zoko but after his first shot was blocked Crewe had looked to have averted the danger only for the ball to reappear at the feet of Freeman in a similar position and his low drilled cross was deflected in past Phillips. Crewe had started the game making individual mistakes again and were being punished heavily like the Gillingham and Walsall games previously.
When Ellis tried to then clear a high ball from our box, it dropped invitingly to Morais, who picked his spot superbly to give Phillips no chance with that one. His accurate curling finish drew applause from both set of supporters it was good. Crewe were 3-0 behind after 20 minutes and chasing the impossible.
Like a wounded boxer on the ropes, Stevenage continued to press forward looking for another hefty punch. Greg Tansey should have made it 4-0 after Zoko had skipped past Dugdale and Morais went another free kick that whipped invitingly across our six yard box.
Crewe were finding it difficult to mount any serious attacks and were struggling to get Chuks Aneke into the contest. Byron Moore was working hard trying to find openings. He had two dangerous crosses cut out and he also released Mellor, who also saw his delivery into the box hooked clear by Jon Ashton.
Crewe’s only real effort in the first half came from Lee Molyneux as he tried to wriggle free to get a shot off. He managed it after a tussle but his shot was blocked, although the wide man appealed for handball.
With the 3-0 advantage going into the second half, Stevenage were in control of the game and understandably they broke up play when they could and wasted time when they could get away with it. They were determined to collect the points and thoroughly deserved them too.
The handful that was Zoko then took advantage of a slip from Ellis but on this occasion, from a tight angle he shaved the post and side netting. It was another decent chance.
Phillips then had to produce a tip over to deny a long rage effort from Michael Doughty before AJ Leitch-Smith replaced Molyneux. Nolan kept probing and hit some decent long range passes before he was replaced by Vadaine Oliver as Crewe had to go in search of a goal to perhaps give us a late lifeline.
Aneke had a shot blocked and another effort on target that was saved by Chris Day after Oliver did exceptionally well to chase a lost cause and keep the ball alive close to the by-line.
Stevenage had other opportunities to extend their lead in the second half with Phillips saving smartly to deny substitute James Dunne a goal. Freeman also planted a free-kick from a good position into our wall.
Tootle and Moore continued to be our best performers, with Tootle our best attacking outlet down the left and it was little wonder that the full-back was voted man-of-the-match by the sponsors for his effort.
Oliver also added some zest up front and was rather unlucky to see his late header from Moore’s cross just pass the far post. It would have been a mere consolation after a really slow start to the game.