Early Zoko strike gives bottom of the table Stevenage the points.
Following the high of a derby day victory over Port Vale on Saturday, Crewe were quickly brought back down to earth with a bump after we slipped to a 1-0 defeat to bottom-of-the-table Stevenage this evening.
After a fairly bright start in this re-arranged fixture, Graham Westley’s side kept their hopes of staying in the league with a narrow 1-0 win thanks to an early goal from their leading scorer Francois Zoko.
After just five minutes, the Ivory Coast born forward showed great strength to turn Mark Ellis inside the box and fire past the returning Neil Etheridge for the only goal of the game.
Crewe certainly had a number of half chances to snatch at least a draw and couldn’t make our dominance in the second period count with Chuks Aneke, Mathias Pogba and Bradden Inman all having efforts at Chris Day’s goal. A header from Aneke that struck the woodwork was the closest we came to drawing level.
Crewe just couldn’t force home an equaliser and credit to Stevenage who defended superbly well to protect their slender lead for almost 90 minutes.
After re-signing on loan earlier in the day, Neil Etheridge returned in goal for Crewe Alexandra. Teenage goalkeeper Ben Garratt dropped to the substitutes’ bench after enjoying a run of 13 matches as first choice.
There was also an enforced change in midfield with George Evans not fit enough to travel to Stevenage. With captain Abdul Osman also ruled out with a foot injury, Steve Davis named Academy graduate Liam Nolan in the starting line-up for only his second ever start for the club. Nolan’s previous start was in the reverse fixture against Stevenage back in October.
After opening the scoring against Port Vale on Saturday, Mathias Pogba was an early presence in his relatively new central role. Some promising approach play from Anthony Grant and Brad Inman saw the ball played into the powerful Pogba and his swift turn and shot saw appeared to take a deflection as it travelled wide of the mark of Chris Day’s post but the referee awarded a goal kick.
Crewe had made a really confident start to the proceedings, but found themselves a goal behind after just five minutes. The former Chelsea trainee Jimmy Smith found Francis Zoko with a forceful pass into the Crewe penalty area and his sharp turn up against Ellis and left footed shot gave Etheridge no chance on his second debut. It was Zoko’s15th goal of the season and the home side had the lead following their first genuine attack.
After falling behind so early, Crewe tried to hit back immediately but after more good work from Inman, the in-form Chuks Aneke snatched at a half chance and Pogba couldn’t quite turn it goalwards at the back post.
Nolan was also called upon to intercept a dangerous looking ball from Luke Freeman that was aimed for the lively Zoko on the edge of the Crewe box.
Crewe continued to enjoy good possession with the former Stevenage players Aneke and Grant trying to have a growing influence on the game. Captain Matt Tootle was also leading by example to try and get the Railwaymen back on level terms and was a willing runner on the right hand side.
The Alex defence had to deal with crosses coming in from the creative Luke Freeman and the centre-halves Mark Ellis and Harry Davis were coping confidently enough with high balls aimed for Darius Charles and Zoko. With their physical presence they were always going to be a handful.
It was taking time for the Alex back four to adjust to having a new goalkeeper behind them again as Etheridge is more pro-active than Garratt and is eager to take command and leave his line.
Smith was becoming more of a threat in the final third and Jon Guthrie had to be alert to cut out another delivery looking for the midfield run of Dean Parrett.
Just before the half an hour mark, a splendid delivery from Byron Moore gave Aneke a chance to head downwards and test Chris Day but after an ugly collision, the on-loan Arsenal younger could only direct it a yard wide of the mark. Aneke received treatment for a clash of heads but was able to continue.
Playing to their strengths Stevenage were unsettling Crewe with their pressing and physical approach to the proceedings. The Alex needed to try and find Pogba better with the balls up to him as we struggled to make inroads into the opposition’s final third. The pressure kept coming back and Etheridge had to concede two corners.
Against the run of play, Crewe had a golden chance to equalise on 41 minutes. Again Moore was the provider with an accurate cross and Aneke once again got his head on it but directed it too close to Day. If he had been able to direct it either side of the vastly experienced stopper then he would have had no chance.
With the first half drawing to a close, Crewe began to impose themselves more on the game and Aneke tried to catch Day out with an ambitious effort.
A forceful run from Charles in stoppage time saw him bundle Ellis over and the robust forward had to halted by the covering Harry Davis as he looked to threaten the Crewe goal.
Etheridge was called into action within two minutes of the restart. The on-loan Fulham goalkeeper had to save smartly after Michael Doughty was allowed to travel too long unopposed to get a shot off from 20 yards.
Day reacted quickly to race from his line to smother a half chance as Aneke tried to play Pogba in behind the Stevenage back four.
Graham Westley made the first change of the game after just six minutes of the restart with Filipe Morais replacing Parrett.
The Crewe front two combined well with Pogba finding Aneke and the club’s leading scorer shot wide from 20 yards out. Another superb cross from Moore, this time from the by-line, picked out Pogba at the far post but at a stretch he could only head onto the top of the netting.
At the other end, a smart turn from Zoko saw him get a shot off from 20 yards out but on this occasion it wasn’t testing Etheridge.
Having increased the tempo of their play, Crewe were looking more of a threat going forward and after Aneke had found Pogba some 14 yards from goal, his instant, powerful shot was deflected over the crossbar for a corner. It was better from the Railwaymen and moments later Inman headed over after Moore had picked him out at the far post. A driven Tootle then saw his cross headed behind by Bira Dembele as Pogba threatened to get across him.
With Crewe now on top and threatening an equaliser, Westley made his second change of the night. Lucas Akins replacing Peter Hartley with just over 20 minutes remaining and Stevenage altered to five across the back.
Crewe were certainly on top but needed their dominance of possession to produce a goal. Inman snatched at a shot after more good work from the excellent Grant before Aneke fired over the crossbar.
With time running away from Crewe, the frustration grew and Davis was booked for a late tackle on Zoko. Stevenage’s last change saw Sam Wedgbury replace Doughty before Billy Waters was provided with a late chance to help salvage something from the game as he was given a late run out for Moore. It was the 19-year-old’s third appearance for the first team.
Waters tried to get on the ball as much as he could. With a few minutes left, the hard working Grant was replaced by Vadaine Oliver. Grant was spent after working tirelessly for the cause against his former club.
In search of a deserved equaliser, Inman created an early chance for the substitute Oliver but he drove his shot wide. It was the last opportunity on a frustrating night.