Diamond really is Norwich City’s best friend
BURNLEY 2, NORWICH CITY 1: 'It's a game of two halves, Brian.' 'Certainly is, Paul.' Norwich City fans have had a few of these this season, but none illustrates the old commentators' favourite like Saturday's visit to Turf Moor.
With a new formation – three at the back, four across the middle and Wes Hoolahan just behind the front two –City were pretty well beaten by half-time. They trailed by a single goal –more of that later – and might have lost by more had they not switched back to the more familiar diamond formation which turned them from back-pedalling kittens to rampant tigers.
Paul Lambert admitted the responsibility for the first half not coming off was his: he picks the team. He also changes it.
And that change was pretty dramatic. City have been a little below par at times recently, yet have still managed to come away with wins. On Saturday, their second-half performance was sometimes as good as it gets, and while they left Burnley empty-handed, there is a feeling that a little of their old verve has been rediscovered.
It's hard to criticise a team that sits in one of the automatic promotion spots and would still be second if they'd had the rub of the green on Saturday, but you do wonder what would happen if they could turn those games of two halves into a complete 90 minutes.
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There aren't many teams who can do that, because football doesn't work that way. If it did, we'd all be top. But maybe the key is, when you've come back from a goal down and there are five minutes left on the clock, instead of valiantly going gung-ho for all three points there is a claim for sitting back a little and accepting just the one. It's anathema, I know, but that extra point would mean City would be third, not fourth, in the table this morning.
Lady Luck is someone who has been done to death on the cliche front, but she turned her back on anything in yellow on Saturday.
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As a vociferous home support ranted and raved about perceived injustices, they will perhaps reflect on a couple of decisions by referee Phil Gibbs that went firmly their way and led to their two most important moments of the game.
The first came soon after the half hour mark when, deservedly, they went ahead. City – apart from a Holt diving header at the far post which deserved better than to find the side netting – had been no attacking threat: instead of Drury and Martin being able to push forward, they were sent into reverse, particularly Drury, who had to cope with Chris Eagles and the overlapping Tyrone Mears.
Drury had by then hacked down Mears with an X-rated over-the-top tackle that saw yellow when most expected red – when Mears gained retribution in the centre circle a few minutes later there was a rather sporting and knowing look between the two that signalled agreement that their spat was now over.
Mr Gibbs was just as lenient then when he allowed Mears to get away with barging into Jackson deep inside Burnley's half. Jackson lay face down in the mud as Burnley broke. Eagles had the ball 30 yards out and when Drury came across from the left, he slipped it to Dean Marney on his right. Marney shot low and true into the bottom corner. A fine finish – but one which should never have been started.
Jack Cork was running operations for Burnley, Eagles tormenting on the right, Ross Wallace less of a threat on the left and new boy Charlie Austin more like Austin Powerless.
City emerged for the second half with Zak Whitbread replaced by Simon Lappin and the diamond formation in operation. Cue the Wes Hoolahan Show. Lambert has often described him as unplayable at times, but it's hard to recall a moment when he ever looked like losing possession, a moment when he didn't look a threat, a moment when you didn't expect him to do something.
With normal service resumed City went for the jugular; within minutes Lansbury had intercepted a Danny Fox clearance and sent Holt scurrying away down the right, only for the skipper to be denied by Grant.
Lappin was denied a goal when his free-kick was pushed away from Grant – the look of frustration on his face clear for all to see.
Hoolahan was running riot down the left, where Mears came under intense pressure, and on 65 minutes they buckled. Lansbury played a good, long ball down the left flank to Hoolahan. Chris Martin and Holt made the charge, and while the easiest thing would have been to try and find Martin, the Irishman, on the run, instead managed to pull his cross back to the edge of the area. Martin had markers, Holt – who Hoolahan had clearly been looking for – hadn't, but there was still bags to do. Somehow, Holt managed to twist his body in the air and get in a right-foot shot which left the keeper flat-footed. It really was a magnificent strike – and right in front of the City fans too.
It's typical of some supporters that his way of playing is often despised. When Jay Rodriguez tried to con the ref again by going over keeper Ruddy's challenge, a fan not far from the press box came out with some classic northern comedy lines. 'Their number nine and number 10 have been diving and eating grass for the last hour and he has the cheek to whistle when one of ours does it. The irony. And for a big fat 20-stone centre forward he doesn't half go down easily,' – said the big fat 20-stone fan.
All good, clean fun, but there was clearly an anxiety that City were on course to win the game – it's been the usual way of things.
Russell Martin claimed in vain for a penalty when his low cross was seemingly handled by the sliding Michael Duff – hardly a surprise that he was ignored.
Chris Martin was close with a shot that took a nick for a corner, and even closer when Grant had to parry away his left-foot drive. Minutes later he had a one-on-one with Grant, but took it too wide and the keeper saved his effort. The pressure was building, but suddenly the valve – or City's defence – opened at the other end.
Again, Lady Luck was perhaps not on their side, as Holt was pulled up for a foul on Mears as he tracked him down the Burnley right. Two players running alongside each other inevitably ends with the man with the ball taking a tumble – we see it on Match of the Day every week because in the top flight it's an art form. Holt didn't help his case because his right arm was across Mears' chest, but football is fast becoming a non-contact sport and when the whistle sounded it was no real surprise.
Fox took the kick, it evaded everyone and all eyes were on Rodriguez, who had got around and in front of sub Aaron Wilbraham and prodded the ball through Ruddy's legs from close range.
It was rough justice on City, who slipped a place to third and then another to fourth courtesy of old boy Craig Bellamy's winner for Cardiff at Swansea yesterday.
But Lambert's observation that the only disappointment was the scoreline, not the manner in which it all panned out, means there is still plenty of wind left in City's sails for the time being.