Reds are through to the second round of the Carabao Cup after a breathless 3-2 win over Walsall at the Bescot Stadium.
Tom Dallison and Ashley Nadesan, on his debut, scored in the space of eight second-half minutes after Filipe Morais had put Reds ahead in the first period. Substitute Caolan Lavery had twice pulled a goal back for the Saddlers but Reds progressed in the competition for the first time since beating Ipswich in 2014.
Gabriele Cioffi rang the changes for Reds first visit to the Banks’s Stadium since 2015. Of the team that beat Salford City on Saturday, only defenders Tom Dallison, Jordan Tunnicliffe, Josh Doherty and midfielder Panutche Camara were in the starting XI.
In came Michael Luyambula, who was making his full debut, George Francomb, Josh Payne, Ashley Nadesan, making his first start for Reds, Filipe Morais, Ashley Nathaniel-George and Ollie Palmer. There was a familiar face in the Saddlers’ line-up in Mat Sadler, who made 115 appearances for the club in two spells between 2012-15. He was one of eight Saddlers’ survivors from the team which drew 1-1 against Forest Green Rovers on Saturday.
The hosts began well, forcing four corners in the opening ten minutes and they had the game’s first chance on 13 minutes when Elijah Adebayo’s cut-back found Josh Gordon, but he dragged his effort wide of the left-hand post.
Nadesan and Nathaniel-George had already shown the threat they offered on the flanks and the pair combined to put Reds ahead on 21 minutes. Nathaniel-George’s pass picked out Nadesan’s run down the left and his low cross was swept in by Morais.
The goal filled Crawley with confidence and before it took two great saves by Liam Roberts in the Saddlers’ goal to prevent them from doubling the lead. On 41 minutes he stood up strongly to block Palmer’s shot after the striker had superbly controlled a long ball to create space for the shot.
Then in stoppage time Palmer found Panutche Camara on the edge of the box and although he struck his volley well, Roberts plunged to his right to block.
At the other end Walsall went closest to equalising on 39 minutes when Luyambula stretched to turn over Sadler’s half-volley after Adebayo had headed the ball into the danger zone.
The second half began in explosive fashion with three goals in the space of eight breathless minutes.
Reds doubled their lead in the 48th minute when Dallison met Nathaniel-George’s corner from the right with a powerful header from six yards into the top right-hand corner.
Seven minutes later Walsall pulled one back with a contentious penalty. Luyambula was penalised for dragging back Sadler on the bye-line as Crawley tried to clear a corner, although there was more than a hint that the Walsall defender had handled the ball moments earlier. Lavery, part of a triple Saddlers’ change moments earlier, drove the penalty down the middle and although Luyambula got a hand to the ball it had too much power.
Game on – but within a minute Reds had regained their two-goal lead. Josh Doherty’s cross from the left picked out Nadesan and he stroked home from close range to make it 3-1 before celebrating in front of the jubilant Crawley fans. His work done the striker was replaced by Reece Grego-Cox on the hour.
Morais with a free kick from 20 yards, and Nathaniel-George, who saw a curling effort only just clear the far post, weren’t far away from extending Reds’ lead but it was the hosts who were next on the scoresheet in the 69th minute. The visitors were caught cold by two quickly taken free-kicks. They cleared the first but the second found Lavery who smashed his angled shot past Luyambula.
Nathan Ferguson replaced Morais, but the momentum was now with Walsall, whose attacking play had been galvanised by Lavery. For the first time in the match Crawley began giving away possession and free kicks and inviting the hosts to throw bodies and the ball into the box.
They were still a threat on the break though, and Nathaniel-George fired wide after an intelligent pull-back by Camara from the right with ten minutes to go.
Reds had a let-off with seven minutes to go when Cameron Norman smashed a volley that clipped the top of the bar and then they had to negotiate five minutes of stoppage time during which Luyambula made a brilliant save to paw away Adebayo’s goalbound header. It was breathless stuff at the end but it made the moment when the final whistle blew, and the players could celebrate with 94 travelling fans, even sweeter.
Reds: Luyambula; Francomb, Tunnicliffe, Dallison, Doherty; Nathaniel-George (Allarakhia 80), Payne, Camara, Morais (Ferguson 69), Nadesan (Grego-Cox 60), Palmer.
Attendance: 2451 (94 Crawley)
Picture: Michael Luyambula pulls off a stunning stoppage-time save in Reds' 3-2 win at Walsall. Photo by James Boardman