Coventry City 0 Crewe Alexandra 3: Wembley beckons after super FA Trophy display
A VINTAGE away performance launched Crewe to within 90 minutes of a return to Wembley.
Two goals from Brad Inman, including a stunning second solo effort, and a third from Ajay Leitch-Smith helped the Alex turn an heroic defensive performance into what must rank as one of the best wins in their history.
Crewe, spurred on by the outstanding Steve Phillips in goal, now must complete the job in the second leg at Gresty Road on February 20 to be in with a shout of picking up their first major trophy.
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Steve Davis sprang the first surprise of the night when he revealed his team sheet, which was minus 11-goal top scorer Mathias Pogba.
Pogba had been called up for international duty and was playing last night for Guinea against Senegal, in Paris, but the Alex boss had managed to keep his secret safe from everyone.
In Pogba's place came Chuks Aneke, making his first start since returning on loan from Arsenal, while Leitch-Smith was preferred to Max Clayton.
At the back, Harry Davis missed out with a toe injury, meaning Adam Dugdale was paired with Mark Ellis.
It was winger Byron Moore who created the first opening when he linked up with Matt Tootle down the right before a low cross towards Aneke diverted to Abdul Osman.
The midfielder fancied his chance of glory from 30 yards, but sent his effort over the bar.
The Alex, however, were not on the front foot for long and Coventry were soon camping in the visitors' final third.
Tootle needed to be brave with a block shortly before Leon Clarke hit the side-netting when he should have done better from Carl Baker's cross.
City's corner count was rising and Phillips needed to show his agility to defy Stephen Elliott from close range.
The opening half-hour was proving a real test of Crewe's mettle and Davis and Neil Baker urged their back line to step up to ease the pressure.
Coventry kept coming and 34-year-old Phillips, who might have been expected to be using his experience to calm heads, was on hand to roll back the years with another stunning stop, as he thwarted Elliott from close range again.
Crewe decided their best form of defence was to attack and Moore switched to try his luck down the left, with Inman playing more narrowly on the opposite side.
It helped turn the tide and Inman's neat play allowed Luke Murphy to burst into the box and set up Osman with a dinked cross.
Osman must have had headlines on his mind as he dived through the air towards the six-yard box, but his header went the wrong side of the post.
Skipper Baker was Coventry's main driving force and he sped past Kelvin Mellor to tear in on goal in the 40th minute. His low cross was looking inviting for Clarke, but Phillips got down well again to cut out the danger.
Clarke did connect a couple of minutes later, from Coventry's sixth corner of the half, but his shot went wide and Crewe were happy to get in 0-0 at the break.
Mellor and Tootle had swapped sides when Crewe emerged from the changing room, but it was soon back to business as usual.
Elliott picked up the ball in the inside left channel and charged at the retreating Dugdale before side-footing a shot towards the far corner, only to see his Phillips dive full-length and palm the ball wide.
However, as Coventry poured men forward Crewe always had a chance of hitting them on the counter and so it proved in the 52nd minute.
Inman picked up a clearance in space near the halfway line and drew two defenders before switching the ball to Moore, who returned the favour for Inman to smash into the top right corner and send the 1,472 travelling fans wild.
It was a superb goal, but also meant Coventry redoubled their attacking efforts in front of their biggest home crowd for a night game since 1981.
They were very nearly helped when Murphy smashed a clearance into Tootle and watched helplessly as the ball headed towards goal, only for Phillips to pull off another save.
There were blocks from Mellor, Ellis, Dugdale and Tootle as the Alex were asked to show their mettle.
Murphy and Osman also dug in on the edge of their own area to help withstand the barrage.
With three men staying high, however, Crewe maintained a massive threat whenever they could move forward and Inman silenced the home fans every time he got on the ball.
In the 78th minute, the loan man took possession and started running at the hosts' defence.
In front of him, Leitch-Smith and Aneke pulled their markers apart and Inman rushed into the space, twisting and turning past three challenges before firing into the corner.
Some home fans had started to filter out before it got even worse for Coventry.
City were chasing a goal as if they did not have a second leg to fall back on and Leitch-Smith made them pay when he received the ball from Aneke on the edge of the area and planted a shot inside the left upright.
Aneke almost made it four with a pile driver, but the Alex fans can already dream of Wembley, again.