CHESTER failed to dent Lincoln City’s title hopes as the 10-man Imps toughed it out for a 1-0 victory at Sincil Bank.
It was always going to be a difficult ask against Danny Cowley’s National League leaders, but the Blues performed admirably despite going behind on 35 minutes through Harry Anderson’s close-range opener.
Jon McCarthy’s side came closest to levelling when James Alabi’s shot was cleared off the line midway through the second-half, with both teams finishing the match with 10 men after Alan Power and Kane Richards were shown red cards for poor challenges on Luke George and Bradley Wood respectively.
Lincoln are now three points clear at the summit after Tranmere’s 1-0 home defeat against Forest Green and are within touching distance of promotion to the Football League.
McCarthy rang the changes to his line-up, with Lucas Dawson, Johnny Hunt and Matty Waters dropping out, replaced by Richards, Wade Joyce and returning skipper George.
There was an air of anticipation at Sincil Bank with the Imps - who enjoyed a fantastic run to the FA Cup quarter-final earlier this season – closing in on promotion, and a bumper crowd of 7,401 was here to see this one.
The game got underway with a tremendous atmosphere but Chester started the brighter in an adventurous 3-4-3 formation with Richards, Elliott Durrell and Alabi forming an attacking trio.
Nathan Arnold forced an early corner for the hosts and his delivery was palmed clear by Alex Lynch. Sam Habergham’s overhit cross then had Lynch back-pedalling but the ball just dropped wide of goal.
Lee Angol’s 13th minute cross was about to find Matt Rhead’s head but Sam Hughes did superbly well to head the ball clear of danger.
Alabi did well to cut into the area but his tame shot trickled wide before a Lincoln counter attack saw livewire Arnold cut across from the right-wing but his shot flew over the bar. Joyce’s 25 yard effort then fizzed over for the Blues in an entertaining opening quarter.
Good work from Angol found Elliott Whitehouse 12 yards out but he spurned the effort as he fired over. Rhead got his head onto Wood’s cross but his weak effort was gathered by Lynch.
Lincoln were enjoying plenty of possession without doing too much with it as the Blues looked to hit Cowley’s outfit on the break, who were dealt a blow on 30 minutes as Angol limped off with a hamstring injury, replaced by eventual match-winner Anderson.
Ryan Lloyd’s square ball found Alabi 20 yards out and his snap-shot flew wide of the target. Former Wrexham centre-half Luke Waterfall was then cautioned for a late tackle on Richards, catching the Blues’ forward on the shin.
The deadlock was broken on 35 minutes and it was replacement Anderson on target. Joyce gave the ball away 30 yards from goal and Habergham’s driven cross from the left wing was met by Anderson, who bundled the ball past Lynch at the second attempt.
A deep cross from Haberghan found targetman Rhead on the right-hand side of the box and his downward header dropped narrowly wide as the Imps pushed for a second.
Chester were now feeling the heat of the Sincil Bank faithful as the air-raid sirens rained down from the stands, and Durrell talked himself into a 43rd minute booking, Waterfall’s header from the resulting corner deflected over.
Richards wasted a good opportunity on the stroke of half-time as Waterfall’s slip let him in but his run took him away from Paul Farman’s goal and he was dispossessed.
The second-half began with Lincoln Cathedral lit up in a spectacular backdrop to proceedings, as Richards low shot on 51 minutes was expertly blocked by Sean Raggett’s slide tackle.
Lloyd was caught ball-watching down the right flank and was cautioned for a lunge on Anderson, who reacted quicker to the loose ball. Arnold was ready to connect with the resulting free-kick but Raggett took it from under his feet.
The second period was an altogether cagey affair, the hosts understandably nervous regarding their position at the head of the table. Alabi’s hold up play down the left-hand side enabled Lloyd to gallop into the area but he was adjudged to be offside.
The Blues were close to an equaliser on 63 minutes when Joyce’s cross found Richards, who in turn laid the ball off for Alabi. The striker spun and got his left-footed shot off, beating Farman but finding Raggett stood on the far post to hook the ball off the line and away to safety.
The Blues were enjoying their best period of the match and the Imps’ supporters could sense their team needed a lift. Alex Woodyard was cautioned for pulling back Joyce, while Hudson went down with a muscular injury and was replaced by Theo Vassell.
George was biting away in midfield and doing his best to launch attacks while Lloyd began to push further forward in a bid to grab an equaliser. Meanwhile the visitors switched things around, Power and Josh Ginnelly replacing Billy Knott and Woodyard.
However, just two minutes later and Power was sent off. The midfielder crunched into a late tackle on Blues’ captain George on 75 minutes and was given his marching orders by referee Alan Young. It was a full-blooded challenge which left the officials with little option.
Despite the numerical advantage, the Blues struggled for the next five minues to get a foothold, Waterfall’s header from Arnold’s corner sailing over Lynch’s head and over the bar.
Roars of delight went up around Sincil Bank as news filtered through of Forest Green taking the lead at Tranmere, as Rhead went down injured after a robust Durrell challenge.
Richards flew in on Wood and was sent for an early bath before Durrell’s long-range strike in seven minutes of added time was well held by Farman, as the hosts’ party began in earnest in Lincolnshire.