City make it hard to suppress optimism
BRISTOL CITY 0, NORWICH CITY 3: Whisper it, but Norwich City won again. Away. And they're third in the table.
While City fans will be happy – delirious perhaps – at what their team is achieving this season, manager Paul Lambert is keen to keep a lid on the excitement, lest some of it should leak out and alert rivals who will then prepare the needles to prick the growing bubble of expectation and make us all sad and dejected again.
It's a tricky one: The more often Norwich produce performances like the one which sent Bristol to the foot of the table, the happier the fans are going to be, the shorter the odds the bookies are going to offer, the more reflective the newspaper headlines and the radio commentaries are going to be.
Lambert suggested the media was at fault for raising expectations, but we all have a job to do – and it's hard to hide the facts. It's not our 'fault' City are doing well.
We all know where he's coming from: his is a warning that there are no guarantees in football. We saw it ourselves last season when widely-fancied Charlton and Leeds wobbled, one more horribly than the other.
Perhaps he's forewarning us of what lies ahead in the rest of October. Having despatched the Robins with consummate ease, the opposition gets an awful lot better.
City have played three of the teams currently in the top half of the Championship, and seven in the bottom half. Coming up they have QPR away, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough at home, then Cardiff away – two off the top, two off the bottom, as Ms Vorderman used to say.
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City don't appear to fear anyone, but equally you can only beat what's put in front of you, and the way City dealt with their opponents suggests that attitude is justified.
In recent weeks City have found the struggling teams difficult to cope with: Hull came to Carrow Road and managed to leave with all three points, despite being outplayed for most of the game. Then Leicester pushed City all the way before losing a 4-3 cracker.
Bristol City may have believed for 20 minutes or so that they had half a chance – but Norwich had learned a lesson. They soaked up what the Robins could throw at them, which wasn't really that much, and then demoralised them.
Even the enforced late change, when Steve Smith came in for Adam Drury, who suffered a hamstring injury during the warm-up, didn't shake City's resolve. Smith had a nervous moment or two early on but, with Simon Lappin there to help him through it, he emerged with flying colours. It was a sign of the teamwork that would stand them in good stead for the rest of the afternoon.
Bristol played three at the back, with wing-backs Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Jamie McAllister pushing on to exploit the gaps which City's narrower system would leave. At times in the opening salvos it looked like it might work, but when Simeon Jackson scored on 23 minutes, that tactic fell down.
Andrew Crofts was tussling for the ball at close quarters and when it ricocheted off his foot it fell kindly for Jackson in the inside right channel. All he had to do was beat the England keeper – and he did it in style, heading into the area and from around 10 yards blasting a shot over David James' head and into the roof of the net. James lay on his back in the area for a few seconds, a sort of 'here we go again' pose. Not the best body language you've ever seen.
From that point on it was City's game: the hosts had their moments, but not for a moment did you think City would relinquish the lead.
Wes Hoolahan had a couple of attempts at lobbing James from distance and at some stages was totally unplayable. Cole Skuse was supposedly marking him, but to little effect. Even when he committed a bookable foul on him, City's star turn still managed to keep his feet and slip the ball forward to Grant Holt, who showed admirable footwork just outside the box to create room for a left-footed shot. All Louis Carey could do as he slid in to try and block was raise his arms and make a better fist of saving it than James had earlier. But it was a case of 'Carey-Less Hands' with referee Fred Graham pointing straight to the penalty spot.
Hoolahan stepped up and put the ball low into the right-hand corner, just out of James' substantial reach.
The game was almost up for Bristol, although maybe they went into it in the wrong frame of mind: their manager, Keith Millen, said it was a 'must-win'. So what happens when you're 2-0 down at home and it's not even half-time?
Sub Lee Johnson hit the bar with an effort as Bristol started the second half brightly, but there was an immovable barrier at the back, in the shape of the City defence, and when Bristol tried to create some pressure, they left gaping holes in midfield. City broke regularly, and dangerously. Holt – who'd missed a presentable chance in the first half – was winning far more possession than he had a right to win, and was almost on the end of a Hoolahan cross while Jackson fired one over and then came even closer to a second when Lappin found him down the left and he ran between the hesitant Steven Caulker and the equally reluctant Carey only to slide his shot past the far post.
It was cracking stuff from City, which deserved more than just the third and final goal. Ruddy gathered the ball from a Bristol attack and while everyone else trotted into position, he saw Jackson way out on the right with his arm aloft. One big, accurate punt put it on Jackson's toe and, with defenders half asleep, he made it into the area and then slipped it low to James' right.
Away performances don't get much better: the emphasis was on teamwork, and while Jackson's two goals stand out, his display was about much more.
His pace was electrifying, his quick passing on the break caused problems and his ability to combine with Holt makes for an interesting fight for a place with Chris Martin. Perhaps the only downside was the injury to Drury, although the precautionary withdrawal ahead of two weeks off may render that an unnecessary concern.
All appears to be going swimmingly, but perhaps Lambert's cautionary note can be supported by what happened at Birmingham on Saturday, when home fans moaned at manager Alex McLeish after the Blues lost at home to Everton.
'It's Alex McLeish's fault because he's raised the levels of expectancy. What's that all about?' said Mark Lawrenson.