Hard-earned point is not to be sniffed at
MIDDLESBROUGH 1, NORWICH CITY 1: Some footballers don't even have to kick a ball and they can still become the pivotal point of the match.
Wes Hoolahan was at the Riverside Stadium yesterday, but a groin problem – the legacy of Saturdays' effort against Queens Park Rangers – had seen him join a pretty decent-looking seven-a-side team on the City injury list.
When things like that happen so late it sends the rumour mill into overdrive: this was no different. He was, variously, injured, angered at being dropped or having a medical at West Brom.
Whenever Hoolahan doesn't start a game, there's 90 minutes or more of speculation. The game could certainly have done with his skill and guile, although even his legs might well have been leaden after the efforts of recent weeks.
Clearly there was evidence of 'after the Lord Mayor's Show', but City have lost just once in their last nine away games and a point at Middlesbrough isn't to be sniffed at.
It's performances and results like this that separate the contenders from the also-rans – even if you wouldn't buy the DVD.
City boss Paul Lambert made changes – Owain Tudur Jones made his first league start for his manager, effectively replacing Chris Martin, who started from the bench, with Simon Lappin, back after suspension, replacing Hoolahan on the left, this time of a flat midfield quartet.
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Adam Drury was asked to go again, which was some request to make, but Zak Whitbread was able to make way for the returning Leon Barnett.
There were plenty of signs of City's patience in the early stages, with the visitors content to pass it around in their own half and then shut Boro down quickly when they had possession.
For a team fighting to save their Championship skins, Boro didn't put up much of a fight in the opening stages, although they did manage to raise the first ripple of applause among a sparse home crowd after nine minutes when Marvin Emnes tried to slip in Barry Robson for a run down the heart of City's defence but was sloppy with the pass, allowing keeper John Ruddy to clear with ease.
Grant Holt had a sniff of a run into the home area soon after, although with Julio Arca nibbling his heels he lost possession.
But Holt was luckier after 12 minutes when he put City ahead. Tudur Jones played a ball out to Russell Martin on the right, his cross was flicked on by Aaron Wilbraham, right into Holt's path.
City's top scorer had plenty to do as he ran diagonally in front of goal, but from a difficult angle he managed to squeeze it in at the near post, under goalkeeper Jason Steele – who should have done a lot better. But a goal's a goal – and when Holt's got the ball six yards out that's usually the result.
Tudur Jones had a shot blocked and then hit the follow-up straight at Steele as City went for a quick second – the confidence from the weekend win over leaders QPR still evident.
When Boro responded, Barnett – back after suspension – was twice there with vital blocks while Tudur Jones did well to halt Emnes in his tracks.
But City's luck deserted them in the 21st minute when Boro levelled. There looked little on for the left-footed Julio Arca just outside the box, but he knocked it hopefully into the area for Leroy Lita, only for the ball to clip Barnett's boot – not Russell Martin's as suggested in other news outlets – and wrong-foot Ruddy.
It prompted a decent little spell for Boro, although the nearest they came was a long-range effort by impressive left-back Joe Bennett.
Lappin forced Steele to turn a fine free-kick effort from 25 yards around a post for City's first corner after 31 minutes as the mini storm appeared to have blown its course.
Lappin got away with a 'foul' on Tarmo Kink to send in a cross which fell to Wilbraham, whose shot was blocked by Lita, before Crofts sent one wide.
Wilbraham then saw Steele turn away a shot from a narrow angle on the right after some sloppy defending as City tried to gain control as half-time approached.
But they had an almighty escape when centre-half David Wheater nodded a corner back into the danger area – Emnes' attempt at a scissor kick failed miserably, but Matthew Bates swung a boot at it ten yards out, only for Wilbraham to block.
Boro ended the half with a flourish, as you'd expect from the home side, and Michael Nelson spared Russell Martin's blushes after he had lost possession to Emnes, although the City man then blotted his copybook somewhat by handling the cross – giving Boro a free-kick on the left edge of the area which Bates headed off target.
There was still time for Wheater to head Robson's cross just wide of Ruddy's left post, leaving City perhaps happy to go in level at the break.
Lambert is not a manager afraid to change and at half-time he brought on Chris Martin for Tudur Jones – reverting to a diamond with the substitute at its peak, where he did so well on Saturday.
Martin was quickly in action, taking the ball from a sleepy Arca in midfield and heading goalwards before then losing possession himself.
Bates was again a danger in the City area ten minutes after the break when he headed wide after Wheater had nodded back Nicky Bailey's corner.
Holt departed for a well-earned rest on 66 minutes, replaced by Simeon Jackson, and from then on City chances were a rarity.
The excellent Korey Smith did well to block Emnes effort after 70 minutes while Arca gave his white boots – obviously preferable to the red ones he wore for the first half – a work-out with a left-footed shot that flashed past Ruddy's right hand post.
Mistakes were creeping into both sides' games as the efforts of the holiday schedule took their toll. Stray passes were the order of the day as the game became more and more disjointed. Ruddy was the busier of the two keepers in the latter stages, denying Robson with a fingertip save in the 77th minute after the Boro man was given a criminally large amount of space to walk into.
The only real threat City posed was when Jackson picked up a Wilbraham flick-on and fired straight at Steele.
Wheater had the ball in the net from Bailey's 85th-minute free-kick but the whistle went almost immediately for a foul, while Ruddy was grateful to see Justin Hoyte's effort come off the outside of his left post in time added on. Robson was narrowly wide the other side, but City managed to hang on. Two big games in three days – but holding down second spot in the Championship made the hard work worth it.