Exeter City continued their solid home form thanks to victory over Crawley Town on Tuesday evening.
Despite an uneventful first 25 minutes, the opening half livened up as it grew older, and a Timothee Dieng brace gave the Grecians a two-goal advantage.
Kwesi Appiah’s goal just before the interval brought Crawley back into it, but the stop-start nature of the second half limited the clear-cut chances; Zanzala and Nadesan wasting their respective team’s best openings.
With Town’s players flooding forward as time ticked down, Cameron Dawson and the defence in front of him stood firm, securing a vital victory.
Matt Taylor made two changes to his starting XI with Josh Coley and Offrande Zanzala brought into the side in what was a change of system; the manager hoping that a tactical switch was the thing that was needed to continue the push towards the League Two summit.
The visitors on the other hand were looking for their first three points in the month of March, and Red Devils’ striker, Tom Nichols, led the attack against the Grecians on his return to St James Park.
As Exeter settled into the game during the early exchanges, they were unable to play their way through what was a stubborn Town backline. Up the other end, Crawley enjoyed some sustained pressure down the right flank, and had their passing been more accurate inside the City penalty area, they may have been able to test Dawson.
The first real chance of the game came for the Grecians however on 13 minutes. Pierce Sweeney found a pocket of space to deliver a deep ball in from the right, and Matt Jay giggled free of his marker to send a half-volley goalwards, with Glenn Morris tipping the shot over.
Jack Powell sent a speculative volley wide for the visitors a few minutes later, while Josh Key’s looping cross had Morris working again.
What epitomised Taylor’s men during the opening quarter was a break from Zanzala midway through the first period. The striker dribbled his way to 25 yards out, but failed to play in Jevani Brown when the opening presented itself.
In the 25th minute, Nick Tsaroulla’s foul and yellow card presented City with a chance to build some pressure. But with the Red Devils able to clear, they were presented with the best opportunity of the contest when Ashley Nadesan rounded Dawson, however, he was unable to reach the ball and turn it in.
Town were made to rue the miss five minutes later as the breakthrough finally arrived through the boot of Dieng. After Jack Sparkes’ free-kick was recycled, some intricate play inside the penalty area between Alex Hartridge and Sweeney allowed the Exeter number 14 to turn and stroke the ball into the bottom corner for 1-0.
Crawley tried to muster a response, and after firing a tame shot at Dawson through a well-worked free-kick routine, Tsaroulla saw a low shot well blocked and cleared.
But it was the hosts who looked more dangerous, and just a few minutes before the break, they doubled their advantage in bizarre circumstances. Josh Key’s bright work on the right saw a cross cleared away to the edge of the box. Dieng kept the attack alive with a looping header, and with Morris looking to divert the ball away, Zanzala’s physical challenge was deemed legal by referee Ben Speedie. The ball ended up crossing the line without any further touch, and Dieng wheeled away in celebration, while the Crawley players surrounded the officials in frustration. After a few minutes of deliberation, the goal was awarded. In the aftermath, one member of the Red Devils’ bench was shown a yellow card for his argument against the decision.
However, the first half action wasn’t finished there. The away team quickly won a corner in the final seconds of injury time, and forced Dawson into a fine stop from the initial goalbound effort. The ball fell to Appiah, and he powered home a shot past all the bodies and into the back of the net to reduce the deficit, and make it 2-1.
Dawson was forced to punch in the early second half exchanges after Dieng sliced a Town cross up into the air, but the better chance came in front of the big bank when Archie Collins’ free-kick was somehow headed over by Zanzala; The linesman’s flag saving the forward’s blushes somewhat.
Waves of Crawley attacks became more prominent as the hour mark arrived, with Taylor reacting by introducing Cheick Diabate and Kieran Philips from his bench; the Exeter shape resorting back to a more familiar wing-back formation.
The away side opened up their opponents however in the most simplest fashion in the 68th minute when Morris went route one, and a flick on to Nadesan saw the forward try and lob Dawson, however, the ball landed on the roof of the net.
That woke City up, and they perhaps should have made the game safe when Sweeney’s fizzed cross somehow evaded everyone in the 18-yard box, with the ball ending up going out for a throw in.
Some good work from Brown on the right side allowed Collins to cross for Dieng in the 73rd minute, but the midfielder saw his attempt for a hat trick repelled by a block.
The Red Devils always remained in the contest, particularly with their direct style, and Crawley replacement, Will Ferry, saw a set header easily smothered by Dawson with just 13 minutes remaining.
With Kyle Taylor coming on from the bench, the Grecians looked to make sure of the result in the final 10 minutes. However, with referee Speedie inconsistent with his whistle, the frustration grew around SJP as John Yems’ side cranked up the pressure.
A long throw had Exeter’s defence in a bit of bother as the match ticked into injury time, and in truth, a loose Town touch had the Grecians rather relieved. Tilley’s late flurry forward saw him deliver a threatening ball and force a corner, but despite the four minutes of added time, and the numerous Crawley set-pieces into Dawson’s box, Speedie’s whistle sounded with City still ahead, with the important three points putting Taylor’s men on 61 points, still just a point outside the promotion spots.
Exeter City: Dawson, Sparkes, Sweeney, Hartridge, Key, Coley (Diabate 62), Collins, Dieng, Jay © (Taylor 84), J. Brown, Zanzala (Phillips 62)
Subs: S. Brown, Diabate, Caprice, Taylor, Atangana, Phillips, Amond
Crawley Town: Morris, Francombe ©, Powell, Nichols, Nadesan, Tilley, Francillette (Hutchinson 90), Appiah, Tsaroulla (Ferry 71), Payne, Hessenthaler
Subs: Seymour, Davies, Adebowale, Ferry, Hutchinson, Marshall
Referee: Ben Speedie
Attendance: 4042 (60 away)