Mixed emotions for victorious Norwich City
NORWICH CITY 4, SHEFFIELD UNITED 2: Lady Luck may have descended on the Canaries at just the right time yesterday, but she can be a nasty piece of work when she wants to be.
The joy of ending the year with a hard-working victory which summed up some of the many good traits which the squad have acquired under Paul Lambert, was tempered by the loss of key players through injury and suspension.
Just as City are looking comfortable top-six contenders, Ms Luck has banished Elliott Ward and Henri Lansbury to the treatment table, with calf and hamstring injuries respectively.
Both will be out for 'a few weeks', with Lansbury in danger of not reappearing before January 16, when his loan from Arsenal is due to end.
With Leon Barnett halfway through a two-match suspension and Simon Lappin picking up his fifth booking yesterday, it leaves Lambert conducting a body count this weekend when leaders QPR come to town – although the return of left-back Adam Drury and centre-back Zak Whitbread to yesterday's squad is some sort of softener.
'I don't care if you are Norwich City or Manchester United – you lose those and it is a big dent,' said Lambert.
The devastation in defence prompted Lambert to start with three at the back, Russell Martin in the middle. Michael Nelson to his right and Jens Berthel Askou to his left.
- 1 'Absolute insanity' - Village' in massive backlash to homes plan
- 2 'Heartbroken' pet owner thanks community after missing dog found dead
- 3 Queen flown by helicopter to Sandringham Estate
- 4 Fire destroys roof of Norwich home
- 5 The most beautiful places to live in Norfolk - according to estate agents
- 6 Wrestler sheds five stone in one last bid to chase his American dream
- 7 Seven of the best locations for a minibreak staycation in Norfolk
- 8 Eight dogs up for adoption at a Norfolk rehoming centre
- 9 7 of the best places to get street food on the Norfolk coast
- 10 Taxi driver hopes to be named Miss Voluptuous UK
The formation lasted around 25 minutes, by which time City's card had been marked by a United side struggling at the other end of the table.
Grant Holt had forced Nyron Nosworthy to deflect a low cross on to his own woodwork in the early minutes, but in truth City were struggling to find any sort of rhythm.
Very often the wide men had the ball and simply knocked it back to keeper John Ruddy, frustration clearly evident in the exhortations of the home support.
The problem is, when you are trying to build Rome in a day you need all the bricks, and some valuable pieces were missing.
On 17 minutes City conceded their first free-kick – and United took full advantage. It was innocuous enough, Askou tangling with former City striker Ched Evans – referee Phil Crossley needed a flag from his assistant to persuade him there had actually been an infringement. Andy Reid stepped up and did what he does best, sweeping a left-foot shot into the top right-hand corner. It was a classy goal – had United used Reid more, they might have done better.
Less than two minutes later it was level, David Fox picking out Nelson with a free-kick from the right, the centre-half running in virtually unmarked to head home from three yards.
The opening stages had been, you felt, a blip, but City still looked nervous. Russell Martin atoned for a poor pass from his own area which had caught Andrew Crofts sleeping by brilliantly blocking Evans' shot after he had drawn Ruddy. That incident may have been the one which prompted the tactical switch, City going back to a straight four at the back, three in the middle and three up top, but within minutes they were behind again.
Stephen Quinn put in a low cross from the right which found Richard Cresswell on the left of the area. Cresswell had his back to goal, but was allowed the space to turn and shoot low past Ruddy. It was a soft goal to concede, but perhaps an example of what happens when you have your first choice defenders and the continuity they have created missing.
It might have got worse for City, but Mr Crossley was about to have an unnerving influence on the game, which is where the aforementioned Lady Luck really came into her own.
With half-time four minutes away, Evans had possession on the left of the area and appeared to turn and then get past Nelson before hitting the deck. It looked for all the world as if Nelson had produced a half-Nelson and wrestled him down and when Mr Crossley blew his whistle the only thing missing was a digit pointing to the penalty spot.
Instead, it pointed away from goal – City had a free-kick and almost 25,000 fans could breathe again.
City's departure for the dressing rooms was greeted with moans and groans – it hadn't been a particularly festive half of football, but the mood was lifted by the appearance of Wes Hoolahan, for the ineffective Simeon Jackson, for the second half.
Combine his sleight of foot, with Mr Crossley's sleight of hand, and you have an explosive mix.
It was immediately clear that City were taking a more direct approach. No more balls back to Ruddy – which was sensible given that his kicking appeared to be off radar – and plenty towards Holt, who, aside from a glancing header in the first half, had struggled to make an impact.
His time would come, and as City raised the tempo and began to look likely to break through, he inevitably took centre stage.
Just after the hour mark Holt had possession in the area, with Nick Montgomery by his side. But when the Blades man stuck a boot out to try and nick the ball away, Holt went to ground – and Mr Crossley blew his whistle.
It took a moment or two to sink in, but eventually he pointed to the spot, and City had a way back into the game. Lady Luck had sent them a belated Christmas gift – United cried as if theirs had been taken away.
When the fuss died down it was left to Hoolahan to convert from 12 yards, and from then on there was only one team that was going to win it.
Chris Martin forced a good reaction save out of Steve Simonsen, but the keeper was beaten for a second time by Hoolahan from the spot on 84 minutes after Kyle Bartley's hand got in the way of Chris Martin's part in a one-two with Korey Smith. It hit his hand, but like so many incidents of its kind, there was probably little intent.
Hoolahan was impossible to handle, setting up Chris Martin before linking well with fellow sub Anthony McNamee down the right: at last, it was worth watching.
With the Blades ready to throw everything at City, McNamee was replaced by Whitbread – a decision that prompted a little arm-round-the-shoulder explanation from manager to player after the game.
City tried to run down the clock, but when Holt barged past someone down the right, a fuse or two was blown. Quinn shoved his hand in Russell Martin's face and generally went a bit mad, earning himself a red card.
There was still time for Evans to bring a terrific save out of Ruddy – even though the linesman had been flagging furiously for a Blades' foul – but City broke, Holt took the ball down the left and into the area and, while he could have had a go himself, waited for Hoolahan and then laid it on a plate for his hat-trick goal.