Norwich City enjoy second helpings at Crystal Palace
CRYSTAL PALACE 0, NORWICH CITY 0: Pre-match – even post-match – conversation whenever Norwich City travel to Selhurst Park is invariably riddled with comments about the state of Palace's home of 86 years.
Traditionally it's far from being a fans' favourite – hot and cold running walls, missing seats, toilet facilities that should carry a health warning.
It's an old-fashioned football ground of the worst variety, but we may have seen the back of it for ever.
One way or another something looks likely to change. Either a) Palace get their wish and move back to the site of their original home and a nice new 40,000-seater stadium, b) Palace are relegated or c) City are promoted.
All three are feasible – although goodness knows how they are going to fill so many seats – and while Saturday's entertainment wasn't the feast of football you'd wish for on what might be an historic final visit to SE25, you get a feeling you know which will come first.
The game at times went some way to describing the venue, but City's recent visits have been poor, results-wise, and a 0-0 draw against a team scrapping for everything and defending a six-match unbeaten run on their own patch is nothing to cry about. Especially when it takes you to second in the table.
It might have been different had Grant Holt done what Grant Holt usually does, and buried a late effort instead of skying it into the south London night. It was a genuine chance in a game when City had so few and, with only six minutes remaining, it would surely have won it. The City philosophy is don't lose, and a point in the bag on a day when most of their nearest rivals concentrated on the FA Cup, has to be considered a point gained.
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Like the ground, there were a few bits that didn't work on the day, a leak here and there, some shoddy workmanship, but it was functional. It did the job. The pre-match and half-time entertainment was a boon for those considering a discussion on the rights and wrongs of the Gray-Keys sexism row – but credit where credit's due; the Crystal Girls were brave enough to come out and work on a bitterly cold day.
City started well enough, Henri Lansbury heading Russell Martin's cross over just two minutes into the game, and then Wes Hoolahan picking up the loose ball after Russell Martin's cross had taken a horrible bobble and curling a left-footer which keeper Julian Speroni, on his 200th Palace appearance, tipped over the bar. That was with less than 10 minutes gone, but that was as close as the ball came to the Palace goal in the first half.
City's passing game wasn't helped by a pitch that looked as if Palace had secretly started sharing it with the local rugby team; it was bare mud in places, and when you have three players in close proximity trying to make neat little passes, a lump of mud is going to nick it away. It did. Several times.
That's no excuse, but you play to your strengths, and Palace's was to allow City possession and get plenty of bodies across the field to frustrate their efforts at finding a man. Grant Holt and, in particular, Chris Martin, were peripheral figures at times because they couldn't be found in space.
David Wright played just in front of his back four shadowing anyone who came his way, although it has to be said that central defenders Paddy McCarthy and Anthony Gardner were excellent.
Likewise the City middle two, Leon Barnett and Zak Whitbread, who is enjoying his first decent run in the side after terrible luck with injuries.
It was Whitbread who took the sting out of a shot by the impressive Neil Danns, who also nearly teed up a chance for James Vaughan as Palace enjoyed some pressure. McCarthy should have scored during that time, but powered a header inches past Ruddy's left post.
The temperature rose as Vaughan was booked for an aerial challenge that left Adam Drury floored: almost 2,700 City fans in close attendance screamed for a red, but referee Danny McDermid was having one of those 'lenient' days – which appeared to include an amnesty for handball offences as well.
Whitbread did well again early in the second half when he blocked Vaughan's shot after David Fox lost concentration and gave the ball away 30 yards from Ruddy's goal.
Days when centre-halves are dominant usually end up like this, although Ruddy did have to parry a Sean Scannell shot and later did extremely well to stop a piledriver from sub Wilfried Zaha. Funny, isn't it, to think that Whitbread's injury problems and long absences became a joke for some, as did the lack of complete trust in Ruddy? How times are changing.
City lost Drury to injury around the hour mark, which meant a first start for Marc Tierney. His long throws are an attacking asset, but the match could have gone either way in the final 30 minutes.
Danns went close, Zaha closer still, although Darren Ambrose's miserable afternoon was compounded when he failed to make the most of a Ruddy miskick (pitch again).
Referee McDermid earns the award for most bizarre moment of the afternoon, when he booked Crofts for, we assume, dissent, after Alex Marrow's scything tackle on Tierney. Curiously, Marrow escaped any punishment which, considering he was booked a minute from time for kicking the ball away, was fortunate for him. Whitbread again did well to deny Vaughan with a block for a corner that wasn't awarded, but it was Holt who had the chance of the game. The ball dropped for him some 12 yards out, but just as the optimists among us were about to utter 'I told you so', the ball was last seen heading for the Selhurst Park 'executive boxes'.
Holt held his head in his hands. He wasn't alone, although on reflection it would have been hard on Palace. Not that that matters in the greater scheme of things.
What's relevant is that City are performing cartwheels to move into second and have a home match, against Millwall, tomorrow night in which they hope to strengthen their case.
By that time they may have been boosted by the arrival of Elliott Bennett – an addition which Lambert clearly believes will give City the extra options they need.