Carlisle United 2 Crawley Town 2: The hope, from here, is that the final half-hour on Saturday does not take a damning place among the reasons a Carlisle United play-off push drifted away. If we reach May with the Blues outside the top seven it will certainly be hard to ignore the period when 2-0 became 2-2, and a little momentum was surrendered at a crucial time.

There is no point in United gazing at their navels about events against Crawley when only eight games remain. They cannot go back in time and correct the problems that cost them against Harry Kewell's men.

April on the horizon is no time for looking in rear-view mirrors. Any weekend that the gap gets bigger, though, must go down as a missed chance - especially when it is missed in such a frustrating way.

With a fair wind, Carlisle would have been two points shy of the play-off zone today. Without Saturday's collapse we could have praised them for again doing their side of the bargain in a tense contest of several teams.

Instead, on a snowy and sunny afternoon, they tripped themselves up. After a persistent effort which had earned a two-goal lead by the 47th minute, Crawley hit back quickly, through Karlan Ahearne-Grant, and then United lost all their initiative, the final blow another Ahearne-Grant shot that slipped into the net via a Jack Bonham error.

Crawley's equaliser was a bleak moment for Carlisle's keeper, who has been in good form recently. The wider debate, though, also focused on a period of substitutions which many in the ground felt deprived United of their advantage, both territorially and in terms of their confidence.

It may be a leap to link a few debatable changes directly to a goalkeeping clanger. It cannot be argued, though, that Keith Curle's alterations improved United. The substitution of Richie Bennett, who scored a first-half cracker and was a potent aerial presence, was not to many people's liking, while the Blues' other switches did not deliver the required result either.

In that defining period, when Carlisle needed to consolidate a 2-1 lead, the ball was no longer sticking up front. United's attacking moves became loose and low-grade. The focus of the team did not seem right with Kris Twardek, one of the subs, leading the line, with Reggie Lambe, who had a disappointing game, in support.

On the right, John O'Sullivan made a poor cameo and, against a Crawley team who did not give up on their attempts to pass and stretch the play, United lost their ability to shape the contest. It became more tense than it needed to be and that equaliser was the unfortunate result.

The suggestion that some illness in the camp was behind some of the changes does not carry huge weight, considering the way one of the replaced men (Bennett) had been playing. Curle, for his part, did not want to go into detail on the reasons for his substitutions, and nor did he want the subject to create "headlines" at a time United are trying to keep their push alive.

"I make decisions based on the information and the football knowledge I've got," said United's manager. "Substitutions, when they don't come off, I take the blame. Simple as that. If you want to create negativity, throw it my way - I'll deal with it."

All in all, you had to conclude that it had been a bittersweet way for an unbeaten run to be extended. The first half was a tricky, often frustrating affair, one United edged in terms of chances and which had Bennett as the decisive player.

Kewell's team have rebuilt their form in 2018 with one of League Two's more intriguing playing styles, with false nines and unorthodox patterns. They began by passing the ball riskily across their own box in the first minute, while a clash of approaches was already evident when United responded with a hanging Mike Jones cross, and a late Bennett challenge that put keeper Glenn Morris on the floor.

Carlisle were also in a more recognisable 4-4-2 than the visitors, who took time to settle despite their attempts to work the ball forward. United aimed a few more crosses into the Crawley box but Ashley Nadesan could only glance on the best of them, Josh Payne curling a tame shot wide in response.

A theatrical fall from Cedric Evina raised the home fans' temperature, referee Martin Coy's decisions also a regular bugbear while some clarity in the play was awaited. Bennett was a presence in the air and on the deck, but Hallam Hope was twice denied when cutting in from the left.

The visitors seemed a collection of good ideas without a dominant presence to sew everything together. Clint Hill blocked a Payne shot after Enzio Boldewijn had ventured in from the left, but there was no real conviction from anyone until Bennett suddenly burst the game into life, controlling a diagonal Jamie Devitt ball and then creaming it past Morris from the left.

That brilliant addition to United's goal of the season shortlist was almost joined by a more methodical second, when an attractive spate of passes in the Crawley half ended with Hope failing to head Lambe's cross past Morris. Early in the second half, though, Carlisle's momentum remained for long enough to get that next goal, when Hope's second attempt after a scramble was judged to have crossed the line.

That, alas, was the last of the good news, and it must be said that Kewell's changes took better effect than United's. Panutche Camara, on for the roaming Mark Randall, gave them a bigger focus in attack, while Boldewijn swapped to the right, where he started linking positively with the overlapping Lewis Young.

It was still, though, a long way back, and when Devitt almost lobbed Ashley Nadesan through, it was tempting to think United were on course. Not so. In the 56th minute, Crawley drilled into Carlisle's left-hand side and when Ahearne-Grant collected the low cross in the box, he created space before his shot skimmed past Bonham at his near post.

Ideally this would have given United the jolt they needed, but the remainder of the game was a misadventure. Curle's first response was to send on Luke Joyce for Devitt, his next to put on O'Sullivan for Bennett, whose withdrawal was booed by some.

The latter rejig saw Lambe move in from the right, but the Bermudan was struggling to make his passes connect, and when Curle next sent on Twardek for Nadesan, it was a case of swapping one isolated young forward for another, with no supporting muscle to force Crawley back.

Curle believed that to pin what happened next on all this was a case of "hindsight", but nobody could pretend the Blues were now on the right track, and there was then a reasonable period of Crawley pressure, especially down the right, before calamity arrived in the form of Ahearne-Grant's 25-yard shot, which should have been bread and butter for Bonham but ended in Carlisle's net.

Even as United tried to respond, you sensed they could not. Hope had ambitious penalty appeals turned down, and O'Sullivan's ventures down the right were badly flawed. By the end Carlisle looked disjointed, both of deed and thought, and the abiding emotion on leaving Brunton Park in a snow flurry was frustration.

Any further games that end in this way will take a bigger chunk out of Carlisle's play-off ideas. The table says they simply cannot afford many more slips.

United: Bonham, Liddle, Parkes, Hill, Ellis, Jones, Devitt (Joyce 64), Lambe, Hope, Bennett (O'Sullivan 70), Nadesan (Twardek 76). Not used: Gray, Grainger, Brown, Stockton.

Goals: Bennett 37, Hope 47

Booked: Hill, Hope, Parkes

Crawley: Morris, Young, McNerny, Connolly, Evina, Payne (Tajbakhsh 69), Bulman, Smith, Boldewijn, Randall (Camara 54), Ahearne-Grant. Not used: Mersin, Cox, Djalo, Lelan, Sanoh.

Goals: Ahearne-Grant 56, 81

Booked: Boldewijn

Ref: Martin Coy

Crowd: 4,097 (75 Crawley fans)