Not the first time this season, the on-loan Arsenal forward Chuks Aneke was the match winner for Crewe Alexandra as his two spectacular goals in the first half set-up a superb 3-0 win over fellow strugglers Sheffield United. Substitute Byron Moore added a third in stoppage time after Brad Inman had forced a save from George Long.
It was a 3-0 win that Crewe thoroughly deserved with Aneke winning the plaudits as the match winner, but the whole team worked exceeding hard to keep the Blades at bay.
In truth, the Crewe goalkeeper Ben Garratt wasn’t tested too much over the 90 minutes with the Blades usually restricted to long range efforts or half chances at corners.
Crewe had further chances to make the scoreline even more comfortable but Long saved from AJ Leitch-Smith, Moore and Inman.
Mathias Pogba made his first start of the season on the right wing with captain Matt Tootle switching to his more familiar right-back position to operate behind him. Jon Guthrie came in at left-back for his first start since facing Wycombe Wanderers in the FA Cup. The two to miss out for the visit of Sheffield United were defender Kelvin Mellor and winger Byron Moore.
Nigel Clough selected his recent loan signing John Brayford at right-back with our other old boy Shaun Miller named on the substitutes' bench.
Crewe Alexandra made a positive start to the proceedings and arguably shaded the better of the possession but in awful windy conditions it was difficult for both sides to conjure up much attractive football.
It wasn’t ideal playing conditions for passing football and Crewe were struggling to get the influential Chuks Aneke into the game and it was much the same with Jose Baxter, the playmaker for Sheffield United.
Mark Ellis picked out a fine pass to find Aneke and his instant pass into AJ Letich-Smith just wasn’t quite collected by the Alex striker and he was marshalled out of the penalty area.
A forceful run from Conor Coady was halted by the covering Ellis and he and Harry Davis stood firm throughout against our former loan target Billy Paynter and his later replacement Chris Porter.
Chances were few and far between and Inman slipped at the far post after Long had come for a high ball from Matt Tootle. Ellis also did well to poke away a loose ball from Jamie Murphy as he threatened to make inroads into our box.
Sheffield United’s best chance of opening the scoring would come from their threat from set plays, but the Alex were well organised and didn’t let the man mountain Harry Maguire free like we did at Bramall Lane.
A cross-come-shot from Pogba caused Long to back pedal and keep his eye on it in the tricky conditions before Crewe deservedly took the lead after 37 minutes.
Aneke was struggling to impose his frame and skill on the game but after picking the ball up some 30 yards from goal, his forceful run left Flynn in his wake and Matt Hill in trouble and after reaching the edge of the Sheffield United box he bend home a fantastic shot. It was a wonderful curling effort that gave Long no chance and gave Crewe an almighty lift as we approached the half time interval.
Before that would arrive though, a confident and fluent Alex would double their advantage in the final minute. Pogba, who worked his socks off in arguably the best team performance of the season was blocked off by Hill and Crewe took advantage from the free-kick.
Leitch-Smith drilled over cross into a crowded box and after Ellis had challenged for it, Aneke collected the loose ball, turned sharply and dispatched it powerfully past a helpless Long for his 10th goal of the season. It was the perfect first half and Crewe were good value for their two-goal lead.
As you would expect, Clough fired up his Sheffield United side at the break and they came out with more purpose attempting to get back into the game. A combination of Ellis and a diving Garratt prevented Coady from providing the visitors with lifeline back into the game. There was a strong appeal for a penalty from some of the Sheffield United players and travelling supporters but referee Sarginson wasn’t interested.
Coady also registered Sheffield United’s first real attempt of the game but it was straight at Garratt.
Grant grew in stature for the Alex and certainly played a key role in helping contain the visitors during that early period of pressure. Tootle led by example as captain and the recalled Guthrie was assured with his defending and passing out from the back.
Inman also did extremely well up against the excellent Brayford, who is always 100% committed to getting forward. It was an intriguing battle down that side of the pitch.
After riding an early storm of possession, Crewe began to threaten once again. More good play from Tootle and Aneke nearly saw Leitch-Smith make it 3-0 and game over but Long did well to block his effort. Long was also called into action to push away a shot from Inman.
With Crewe beginning to impose themselves again, the visitors made a double substitution with Bob Harris and Stephen McGinn replacing Jamie Murphy and Flynn.
In reply a curling free-kick from Harris had Garratt a little worried and he had to apply a touch to get it behind for a corner.
Pogba pulled one down on his chest and was a little unfortunate to see Long quickly upon him to deny him his first goal of the season.
Crewe looked the more likely to score again and after Evans sent Inman into space down the left channel, he cut inside before firing just wide.
Clough introduced Porter for Paytner and he went close with a close range header after Brayford had for once got round Inman on the outside. Another dangerous cross from Harris also whistled right across our six-yard box and only needed a touch.
The hard working Leitch-Smith made way for Moore and the winger could and perhaps scored with his first touch after great approach play from Aneke and Inman, Moore fired straight at Long. He would make up for it.
With time running out, Crewe sat deeper but were comfortable. Aneke had been fouled all afternoon but was strangely the only player booked for a pull back! A tiring Pogba made way for Uche Ikpeazu. He instantly demonstrated his great strength to hold off Maguire but he shot into the side netting.
Crewe rounded out a perfect afternoon with a third goal in stoppage time. Aneke was involved again to slot in Inman and after his shot was saved by Long, there was a fresher Moore racing in to take advantage of the rebound at the far post.