Crewe 1 Sheffield U 0: Home advantage for Blades looks to have vanished
Following on from last weekend’s abject 3-0 defeat at relegated Portsmouth, the Blades blew another chance to move into fourth place as Crewe Alexandra ended a four-game losing run courtesy of a wonder strike from Chuks Aneke.
Defeat means Chris Morgan’s side go into the final-day meeting with Preston North End knowing that any chance of claiming third place has gone.
Worse still, fourth-placed Yeovil, who travel to second-bottom Bury, are sitting three points ahead of United with the Somerset club also boasting a slightly superior goal difference.
Thanks to Wednesday being at home to Middlesbrough in the Championship on Saturday, May 4 when one of the two League One semi-final first legs is scheduled to take place, Bramall Lane seems set to host play-off football the previous evening.
On the current league standings, Brentford will be the visitors that Friday with the second leg then taking place at Griffin Park on Bank Holiday Monday (May 6).
According to recent history, missing out on either third or fourth place does not bode well with United’s last three appearances in the play-off final having all come after enjoying home advantage in the second leg. Adding to the bad portents is the last time the Yorkshire club was knocked out in the semi-finals – in 1998 by Sunderland – having come after the first leg had been played at the Lane.
Plenty to ponder, therefore, for Morgan, who at least saw a much-improved attitude from his side last night compared to the debacle at Fratton Park.
United created enough chances to have claimed at least a point from their first trip to Gresty Road since 2005. But, in the end, they lacked sufficient cutting edge up front as Alexandra claimed their first win since lifting the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy on April 7.
A flurry of chances came in the opening half hour or so as United attempted to banish all memory of the Portsmouth defeat by taking the game to their hosts on a pitch that had been heavily watered ahead of kick-off.
Harry Maguire was the first to go close with a powerful header from a Barry Robson free-kick on five minutes that Steve Phillips beat away with a flying save.
The Crewe goalkeeper also had to react smartly to keep out, first, a Callum McFadzean shot and then Chris Porter’s follow-up after the home defence had been opened up by an incisive Kevin McDonald pass.
Jonathan Forte, after dispossessing left-back Kevin Stewart, wasted another promising opening by firing over during a one-sided opening third before the Railwaymen finally started to exert some pressure at the other end.
George Long’s first save of the night came nine minutes before the break when he kept out a deflected Ajay Leitch-Smith shot.
It was the prelude to a strong Crewe finish to the half as Mark Ellis had a header blocked and then Chuks Aneke brought a fine save from Long with a drilled 20-yard effort that was heading for the bottom corner.
The save drew deserved praise from the 1,629 away fans. Long, however, could do nothing about Aneke’s next shot on goal as his 25-yard curler flew beyond the despairing dive of the Blades goalkeeper and into the corner of the net.
Just four minutes of the second half had been played, meaning there was plenty of time for the Blades to fight their way back into the contest.
Robson was unfortunate not to do just that with a 55th-minute free-kick that Phillips did brilliantly to turn away at full stretch.
Joe Ironside also threatened the Crewe goal with a shot that flew just wide after the substitute had shown great tenacity to battle his way through a couple of challenges.
However, as close as United went in these two instances, it was the hosts who looked much more likely to find the second goal of the night.
Anke, in particular, never gave the Blades defence a moment’s rest and he was unfortunate to see a trademark dart forward end with a shot that flew just inches over the crossbar.
He went even closer with 15 minutes remaining before United again stepped up their efforts in the closing stages.
First, McFadzean wriggled his way through on the left before bringing a save from Phillips before Jordan Chapell shot wide with the follow-up.
Michael Doyle’s drilled cross was then spilt by Phillips, ironically just as he was being announced over the PA system as man of the match, but no Blade was on hand to capitalise.
United refused to be downhearted but Doyle shot over and then Phillips again denied Ironside to leave the Yorkshire club’s hopes of securing home advantage in the crucial semi-final second leg hanging by a thread.
Crewe Alexandra: Phillips; Mellor, Davis, Ellis, Stewart; Osman, Moore, Turton, Inman; Leitch-Smith (Ray 87), Aneke (Ellington 41). Unused substitutes: Garratt, Tootle, Clayton, West, Colclough.
Sheffield United: Long; Westlake, Maguire, Collins, Higginbotham (Murphy 46); Forte (Ironside 65), Doyle, McDonald, Robson (Chapell 70), McFadzean; Porter. Unused substitutes: Flynn, Barry, Coyne, Whitehouse.
Referee: O Langford (West Midlands).