The Imps slipped to defeat in Cheshire as Crewe Alexandra netted twice in the second half to take the points at the Alexandra Stadium.
The home side tasted victory thanks to a Paul Green header and a deflected effort from James Jones, the Imps did pull a goal back through Harry Anderson but it was too little too late as the hosts ran out winners. However, with other results going in favour of the table topping Imps, they still occupy the top spot in Skybet League Two by virtue of four points over second placed MK Dons.
City made two changes to the side which defeated Newport County just ahead of Christmas, Josh Vickers returned after recovering from injury, so too Bruno Andrade as they came in for Grant Smith and Shay McCartan respectively with the latter pair both taking up places on the substitutes bench for The Imps.
The visitors, backed by around 1,000 travelling supporters started the game on the front foot, pressing high and forcing Crewe onto their heels. Harry Anderson in particular making an early indication of his intentions as he breezed past Crewe full back Harry Pickering with ease on halfway, but his shot was subsequently blocked by Eddie Nolan in the heart of the Alex defence.
However, The Railwaymen grew in confidence and Perry Ng tried his luck after marauding forward from right full back, but like Anderson earlier, his effort was to find an opposition player in the way before the number 2 for the home side tried to provide a chance for the strikers, clipping in a cross which was met by Michael Bostwick, with a thumping header to clear the danger. Chris Porter was then to win his aerial battle, nodding a Pickering cross off target as Vickers watched it bounce out for a City goal kick with the home side arguably having the better of the opportunities with a quarter of an hour gone.
Vickers was then called into action following a cross from Ng which was initially cleared by former Alex player, Michael O’Connor, the ball was collected by Pickering and he thumped an effort which The Imps’ ‘keeper had to dive full length to his right and palm away from goal. City quickly broke at pace following the earlier effort, Anderson winning an aerial battle with Pickering to nod to John Akinde, the striker took a touch before squaring the ball, it clipped the heels of Nolan just diverting it away from Bruno Andrade, and for the first of two quick corners for the visitors as the game sprung into life.
Shackell was heavily involved in both of the set pieces, after the first one was nicked away from the City defender, he saw a shot at the back post blocked from the second as it arrowed towards goal, the close call lifted the travelling army of Imps’ supporters. Lee Frecklington showed a typical steely determination to first win back possession then drive forward towards goal, playing a one-two with Tom Pett but the ball just crept away from the City skipper allowing George Ray to intercept. Crewe quickly broke at pace down the right, with James Jones having a swing at the ball which was unsuccessful but the home side recycled the ball to Charlie Kirk who couldn’t turn the ball home but his effort was close enough to see Vickers scrambling across his goal as it whistled wide of the upright as play for a spell was going end to end quickly and regularly.
The Railwaymen pressed higher up the field as half time approached and were putting City under increasing pressure, but the Imps’ defence were as committed as ever, Shackell putting his body on the line as Ng tried his luck again before Jones was inches away from opening the scoring as he lashed a close-range volley over the top from around 10 yards.
Kirk then linked with Jones, the Crewe number 20 sneaking in round the back of the City defence only to find Vickers in his way, the ‘keeper showed great awareness to race off his line and close the angle intelligently blocking the route to goal.
City’s defensive shape and focus frustrated the home side couldn’t make the breakthrough and it was evident as Pickering resorted to shooting from fully 30 yards but the ball sailed over the top leaving Vickers untroubled and the scores level at the break.
Crewe Alexandra 0 The Imps 0
The Railwaymen were to start the half much like they ended the first, pressing high up the field and they made their mark on the game quickly, Paul Green lashing a shot which was deflected just wide and they were to find the goal from the resulting corner. The ball was curled in from the right and Porter leapt highest to connect with the ball and it snook in at the back post.
City looked to react quickly to the disappointment of going behind, Shay McCartan won a free kick on the corner of the Crewe box giving Harry Toffolo a chance to whip in a dangerous inswinging ball but the home side defended well with Akinde in the thick of the action but he was outnumbered in the heart of the Alex area.
The Imps were close to getting back on level terms ten minutes after the opening goal following a wonderful link down the left between Toffolo and Pett, the full back played in a low centre which somehow didn’t find a City man and it dropped to Kirk who hooked the ball clear. The game found a new intensity with both sides pressing harder than ever to win possession back and as a result the atmosphere hotted up, Anderson almost nicked possession from Nolan deep inside opposition territory but the ball deflected out for a Crewe goal kick before Green tried to catch Vickers out, electing to cross when maybe a shot was on the cards, but the City ‘keeper read the situation perfectly by calmly plucking the ball out of the air.
Frecklington caused panic in the home box and was close to fashioning a chance for Anderson, but the latter was just closed down at the last and they were to rue the chance as Jones scored a second for the home side. A cross was pinged in from the Crewe left by Kirk, Green ran onto it and hit a shot low and it appeared to cannon off the Alex number eight and bounce into the goal.
Naturally the home side’s tails were up and the home fans were baying for a third goal and they thought it was to come to fruition when Ryan Wintle made inroads from halfway into the City half, the Alex’s number 15 showed his pace to get free and into the box to prod the ball goalward with the outside of his right foot but Vickers saved.
City worked hard to try and fashion a late fightback, Anderson, who had switched to the left flank, made a wonderful move forwards linking first with Toffolo then with Matt Rhead which saw the winger break into the area but Crewe were there again at the crucial moment to deny City. However, deep into injury time, City were to get on the scoresheet as a lovely touch from Kellan Gordon created space on half way as he left two players behind, he slid the ball into Frecklington who squared for ANDERSON to slide home a consolation goal.
Crewe Alexandra 2 The Imps 1
1 Ben GARRATT
2 Perry NG
3 Harry PICKERING
5 George RAY
7 Chris PORTER
8 James JONES
10 Jordan BOWERY
12 Eddie NOLAN
15 Ryan WINTLE
17 Paul GREEN
20 Charlie KIRK
13 Dave RICHARDS
9 Shaun MILLER (90' for Porter)
11 Callum AINLEY (81’ for Green)
14 Alex NICHOLLS (90’ for Kirk)
19 Owen DALE
24 Lewis REILLY
29 Nicky HUNT
Goal: Porter 47’, Jones 72’
Booked: Green 59’ Wintle 82’
1 Josh VICKERS
4 Michael O’CONNOR
5 Jason SHACKELL
7 Tom PETT
8 Lee FRECKLINGTON
11 Bruno ANDRADE
14 Harry TOFFOLO
16 Michael BOSTWICK
23 Neal EARDLEY
26 Harry ANDERSON
29 John AKINDE
21 Grant SMITH
2 Kellan GORDON (77’ for Akinde)
6 Scott WHARTON
9 Matt RHEAD (69’ for Pett)
15 James WILSON
17 Shay McCARTAN (40’ for Andrade)
18 Bernard MENSAH
GOAL: Anderson 90'
Booked: Bostwick 52’ Akinde 60’ McCartan 90'
Referee: Christopher Sarginson
Assistants: David Benton & Ravel Cheosiaua
4th Official: Danny Gratton
Attendance: 4,440 (910 Imps’ supporters)