It was anything but a Good Friday for Reds who suffered their third successive League 2 defeat in the rain at the Abbey Stadium.
Two first-half goals by Jabo Ibehre and George Maris, both from set pieces, put Cambridge in control.
Harry Kewell switched to 4-4-2 at the break and Reds were back in it when Josh Payne converted a 49th-minute penalty.
But Jevani Brown restored Cambridge’s two-goal advantage nine minutes later and there was no way back for Reds, who must regroup and go again on Easter Monday at home to Swindon Town.
There were three changes to the side beaten last time out by Cheltenham. Mark Connolly returned after a one-match ban and there were returns for Payne and Jordan Roberts, who made his first start since the defeat at Forest Green five weeks ago. Enzio Boldewijn, Joe McNerney and Panutche Camara dropped to the bench.
Reds made the worst possible start when they fell behind after just four minutes.
From Cambridge’s second corner, Maris floated the ball into the six-yard box and Ibehre, who scored the only goal when the sides met earlier in the season, rose to head inside Glenn Morris’s left-hand post.
Reds’ best hope of a response in the first half was when Karlan Ahearne-Grant got on the ball and ran at the home defence. A couple of bursts by the striker ended in hasty clearances by the hosts but they were rare moments of alarm for Cambridge.
Home keeper David Forde was only called on to make one save in the first half when he held a long-range effort from Josh Yorwerth as Reds, despite having plenty of possession, struggled to make headway.
And they fell 2-0 down in the 21st minute from another set piece. Dannie Bulman fouled Ibehre 22 yards out and Maris stepped up to curl an excellent right-foot free kick around the defensive wall and inside the left-hand post.
In terms of first-half goalmouth action that was about it. Morris saved at Brown’s feet in stoppage time and Harry Kewell reacted at the break by bringing on Enzio Boldewijn and Panutche Camara for Mark Randall and Jimmy Smith in a 4-2-4 formation and within four minutes of the re-start Reds were back in the game.
Josh Yorwerth was sent tumbling by Ibehre’s clumsy challenge in the box for a penalty which Payne converted for his third goal of the season, sending Forde the wrong way.
On 54 minutes Reds were close to levelling and conceding again in the space of 60 seconds when Roberts’ header from Lewis Young’s right-wing cross was deflected inches the wrong side of the post. Roberts gave the ball away from the corner though, Cambridge countered and Maris struck a shot from 20 yards which hit the post with Morris beaten.
Reds didn’t learn their lesson though and fell 3-1 behind in the 58th minute. As they appealed for offside, Brown waltzed into space after being picked out by Maris, went around Morris and rolled the ball into an empty net – the 11th goal Crawley had conceded in three games.
Roberts went close again in the 63rd minute when his glancing header from Payne’s free kick brushed the top of the bar but Reds were still vulnerable at the back themselves and Morris stretched to turn Brown’s shot from an angle over the bar.
The second half had certainly been a better spectacle and Yorwerth was in the wars when Brown’s strike from just outside the box hit him on the face and he was only able to continue after treatment.
Moussa Sanoh replaced Cedric Evina for the last 14 minutes in another attacking change but the third goal knocked the stuffing out of them.
Reds: Morris; Young, Connolly, Yorwerth, Evina (Sanoh 76); Ahearne-Grant, Bulman, Payne, Randall (Boldewijn 45), Smith (Camara 45), Roberts. Unused subs: Mersin, Tajbakhsh, McNerney, Lelan.
Attendance: 4131 (199 Crawley)
Pictured: Karlan Ahearne-Grant challenges Greg Taylor. Picture by James Boardman (Telephoto Images)