Crewe 2-0 up at half-time are pulled back late on but the Alex hold their nerve in the shoot-out to win 4-2.
In his pre-match briefing yesterday, David Artell expressed that his Crewe Alexandra side had the belief to come to the Riverside Stadium and ‘give it a real go’ against Middlesbrough. On the back of our first win of the season at Oldham Athletic at the weekend, the Railwaymen certainly did that and more on Teesside but a penalty-shoot victory did not tell half the story about our overall performance in a thrilling 2-2 after 90 plus minutes.
Starting out as rank outsiders for this Carabao Cup tie, Crewe carried on where they left off at Boundary Park by looking a real threat against a Championship team. Late first half goals from Chris Porter and Charlie Kirk gave us the cushion of a deserved 2-0 lead at the interval but a spirited ‘Boro fought back to draw it level after 90 minutes thanks to goals from their effective substitute Ashley Fletcher and in injury time through Marc Bola. It was heart-breaking for the Alex who had been in control for much of the tie.
The home side’s late comeback meant a penalty shoot-out. Crewe’s spot kicks were top drawer with Porter, Green, Pickering and Jones all dispatching ours and Assombalonga wasteful with his and Dave Richards saving from Marcus Browne to seal a 4-2 win and the away end went crazy. You could hear our fan base singing down the street as they left the stadium and what a class act the Boro fans were, as they stayed behind to applaud our club off the pitch.
Crewe Alexandra last visited the impressive Riverside Stadium in February 1998 when a solitary goal from Neil Maddison ten minutes from time was enough to give ‘Boro the victory back in our Championship days.
For our more recent trip to Teesside, David Artell made three changes to the side that deservedly won 2-1 at Oldham Athletic at the weekend. There was a change in goal with Dave Richards replacing Will Jaaskelainen for his first start for almost a year.
Two of the substitutes’ who appeared at Boundary Park were handed starts against the Championship side. Owen Dale came in for the unwell Daniel Powell and Callum Ainley was operational in a midfield role for the rested Paul Green.
New into the job at the club he served so well as a player, Jonathan Woodgate, wanted to assess the potential of his full squad and made a number of changes from the side that somehow lost 1-0 at home to Brentford at the weekend. The likes of Marcus Browne, George Saville, Rudy Gestede and Marc Bola all came into the starting line-up for Middlesbrough.
As you would expect, Middlesbrough started in possession and continued to keep it for long periods. There first real sight of Richards’ goal saw Ste Walker drive a shot from just inside the Crewe penalty area that Richards did well to hold with Gestede looking for any parry out into his path.
Crewe’s first real venture into the ‘Boro half of the field saw George Friend let Dale know he was about with a hefty aerial challenge that resulted in a free-kick in a good position. Pickering whipped one to the far post and Dale had stolen a yard on George Saville but he couldn’t direct his header on target.
Inside the opening 10 minutes, there was a short stoppage after Tom Lowery took a bang on his shin but the diminutive midfielder soon resumed his neat passing after receiving treatment.
With Middlesbrough dominating the ball, Crewe were forced to perform a containing job and most of the home side’s play was in front of us. Our shape was solid enough and the work ethic was evident. Concentration wise the Alex had started a lot brighter than the opening two games of the season which had seen us concede extremely early.
Our high press saw Kirk pinch possession on 15 minutes and after an interchange of passing between Dale and Ng saw us force our first corner but it was eventually cleared by Adam Clayton. More good play from Ng, Ainley, Kirk and the over lapping Pickering saw us deservedly force another corner and on this occasion, the-on-the-move Porter flicked his near post effort into almost the side netting.
Crewe continued to frustrate the home side and pinched possession in some promising areas of the pitch but Middlesbrough were well drilled at the back and it was difficult to really penetrate behind.
At the other end of the field, Marcus Tavernier had a shot from outside the box deflected behind by the stubborn presence of Nolan and from the resulting corner; the giant frame of Gestede flashed a header harmlessly wide.
A probing run from captain Ng saw him allowed to come inside from the right flank but he couldn’t quite get around his shot to register an effort on target.
Crewe were really growing into the game though and the opening goal duly arrived on 41 minutes.
It was that man Porter again.
Another Crewe corner, this time from the right, eventually broke to Kirk and the wide man showed incredible feet and then composure on the edge of the penalty area to find Lancashire in space. The centre-half was probably attempting a shot but after he had lashed it across a crowded box, Porter had the instinct to get himself inside the six-yard box and he adjusted his neck to nod it past the helpless Pears for his third goal of the season.
It got even better for the Alex in first half stoppage time when Crewe broke with real purpose to score a well-crafted second goal. Dale’s pace took him into the final third and the youngster had the awareness to flick it through to Kirk and his side footed placement beat the covering George Friend and then Pears for his first goal of the season. Crewe were excellent, especially when stealing possession and counter-attacking. No-one could argue that we quite deservedly went in at the break two goals up.
As expected, Woodgate made two changes at the break when introducing holding midfielder Paddy McNair and striker Britt Assombalonga. Walker and Clayton made way. Assombalonga tried to make his physical presence known but Crewe continued to defend with real resilience.
With confidence, Ainley tried his luck with an early effort from 25 yards but Pears had shuffled across to have that one covered.
The Alex shape and recovery was still assured. The game management and tactics were continuing to frustrate Woodgate’s side and the home support. When they did have the ball bouncing around the box, Lancashire threw himself in front of a shot from Saville.
Woodgate’s final hand saw Gestede replaced by Ashley Fletcher on the hour mark. Five minutes later and Crewe were presented with a great chance to make it 3-0. Pickering’s deep corner picked out an unmarked Wintle at the far post but he headed too close to Pears and he kept his side in it.
Ainley so nearly found the net with a fantastic hit from 25 yards and his whipped effort just cleared Pears’ left hand post. It was a tremendous shot that had many of the Crewe players holding their head in their hands because it was that close.
The home side kept running the channels but were often caught offside due to their over eagerness and in truth David Richards was having a rather quiet night in terms of genuine saves.
Ng was booked for taking his time at a throw-in and Saville for a foul on Pickering. With just over 18 minutes remaining, Crewe were dealt a blow when the impressive Lancashire seemed to aggravate his groin again. He was forced off and was replaced by youngster Billy Sass-Davies.
He had barely time to settle into it before Fletcher touched the ball past him and made his way with purpose towards our goal. His accurate shot into the bottom corner gave Richards no chance and that was the home side’s lifeline back into the tie.
The Boro goal, prompted Artell to turn to the experienced old head Green for Ainley. Jones offered fresh legs for Lowery. It was going to be backs against the wall stuff for the final ten minutes of a gripping cup tie.
With five minutes remaining more good work from the threatening Fletcher saw him find Tavernier in a good position to shoot across Richards but full-back Pickering made a stunning block. It was perfectly timed to divert it behind for a corner. Those bodies on the line continued with Ng making a necessary block and Dale doing his defensive duty at a corner. Richards also left his line on one more than one occasion to come and collect through balls over the top.
As the game entered stoppage time though, the spirited Boro scored a dramatic equaliser. Fletcher, who had certainly made a difference with his forceful running played a neat one-two to get in behind and his pull back evaded a cluster of bodies to find Marc Bola at the far post and he drilled his shot through the bodies to level things up.
The tie would be decided by a penalty shoot-out. Calm as you like, Porter was never going to miss. Assombalonga did by blasting well high and wide of the target. Green slotted home with confidence for Crewe as did Fletcher for the home side.
At 2-1 to Crewe, Pears got a hand to Pickering’s effort but couldn’t keep it out. McNair thumped home his spot-kick to make 3-2 to the Alex. Jones had a crucial one and defeated Pears through the middle and when Richards saved a weak one from Marcus Browne, Crewe were through to round two. Unbelievable and memorable stuff.