Norwich City come up with the right answers
SHEFFIELD UNITED 1, NORWICH CITY 2: When you ask a question it's because you expect to get a response. So, after pointing out how poor they had been in the first 45 minutes at Bramall Lane, you wonder just what Paul Lambert had asked of his side at half-time.
The City boss revealed little in his post-match interview, suffice to say that what is said in the dressing room stays there. 'Leave it like that,' he said.
So we have to assume that he wanted to know why City were playing second fiddle to a side which can hardly buy a win at home, a side which, a month earlier, had shipped four at Carrow Road, a side which relied an awful lot then on abrasive effort rather than genuine quality.
Or maybe he asked whether the yellow and green shirts in the crowd they would soon be playing towards – which seemed outnumbered only by the number of empty red seats –deserved another tepid 45 minutes from a side which rarely has two bad halves of football in the same day.
Three quarters of an hour later it was clear that whatever the questions he asked, Lambert had yet again drawn a response from a team that is making a habit of proving they are fit for all occasions.
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It wasn't the typical example of a game of two halves – although had former Canaries loan striker Ched Evans taken an acceptable percentage of the chances that came his way in the opening 45 then it might well have been a different set of questions from Lambert.
City were surprisingly turgid during that period, having struggled to get their passing game going and only threatening at the very death. But those who watch them every week know that there is often a trick up their sleeves. If one half is suspect, the other half is usually very different.
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And so it proved.
Marcus Bent might well have been accorded the traditional reception given to ex-Ipswich players, but United's new signing linked up well with Evans early on. Stephen Quinn – more of him later – forced John Ruddy down smartly to keep out a little flick, while Evans proved he was sharp with an innovative looped effort over his head.
United fans clearly hadn't forgotten the events of December 28 at Carrow Road, when they accused Grant Holt of winning a penalty that wasn't: when he clutched his face after a headed effort on Saturday, he was greeted with chants of 'cheat'. The phrase 'water off a duck's back' comes to mind.
Evans was looking the most likely to score, cracking a right-footer just wide after picking up Bent's headed knock-down and then testing Zak Whitbread's pace on the right, outstripping him, but ending a promising run with a tame shot.
Andrew Crofts stoked up the hornet's nets that is Quinn, earning himself a booking, as the City midfield struggled to get to grips.
They were indebted to Ruddy – or more accurately his left leg – on 22 minutes when Evans had acres of space on the left of the area to collect a free-kick and tee up a shot at goal.
Another Evans effort – from a free-kick – whistled past a post, but the more that happened, the more you felt confident City could ride the storm.
Some bad habits were coming out: Wes Hoolahan and Chris Martin were both caught being lazy in possession and needed full-backs Russell Martin and Adam Drury to come to their rescue with timely interceptions which prevented the Blades breaking free.
Quinn, who had been sent off in the final moments of that recent meeting, looked like he was drawing up plans for the Battle of Bramall Lane when he tangled with Holt as half-time approached. Holt had fouled him, no more, and then tried to help him up: it looked a genuine attempt, but who knows? Quinn didn't take kindly to the peace offering and squared up to the City skipper. It was all unnecessary and all planned either to wind up Holt, wind up City or wind up the crowd. It didn't really achieve any of its aims.
Quinn had tried to get a response and it hadn't worked and on reflection, it may have ended up being a contributory factor in their defeat. United had failed to get the big boy in trouble with the teacher, and from then on you could see something different in the way City went about their business.
The final few minutes of the half were City's best by far, with Chris Martin smashing a free-kick against the crossbar after he had been brought down while heading for goal.
Then came Question Time (clearly not just the domain of Clarke Carlisle).
It would be unfair to say City came out all guns blazing and pummelled United into submission, but the visitors were clearly improved after the break. They cut out the mistakes, made more passes, and generally had more control of which way the ball was going.
It's been a common thread of Lambert's team that they will adapt to the conditions: if they need to slug it out they will; if it's a war of attrition, they'll compete; if it's quality you need, they'll do that too. Horses for courses.
On Saturday, it was about grinding it out, and Crofts is the man most suited for such occasions. It's fair to say his cracking early-season form has dipped a little of late, not enough to prevent anyone from pencilling him in as a starter every week, but enough to raise an eyebrow or two. Lower them now.
Having grafted away for an hour, he seized one of the few clear-cut chances that came City's way to put them ahead, latching on to the loose ball after Steve Simonsen – under pressure from Whitbread – had spilled David Fox's corner.
Eight minutes later Evans got the better of the otherwise excellent Barnett in the area, turning his man before firing in a low shot to level it. Barnett's face told you what you needed to know about that: from a good position, City were unnecessarily pegged back.
Chris Martin then forced Simonsen into a full-length save after good work in the corner by Crofts, who, 10 minutes from time, popped up again to secure the points.
It was a similar goal in that Fox's corner, flicked on by Holt, wasn't claimed by Simonsen, who was under all sorts of pressure. Evans twice tried to head it clear – the first time getting a big old nudge from sub Aaron Wilbraham in the process – and Crofts was there to fire home.
United complained about both goals, with manager Micky Adams suggesting afterwards that it might well even itself out over the rest of the season. If that happens it will be coincidence, nothing more. There is no such thing as dodgy decisions 'evening themselves out'.
The truth is, for the second time in a month, two teams rubbed each other up the wrong way: City finished with the polished side facing up; United still have a lot of rough edges to smooth out.