Norwich City must respond after Derby ram raid

Bradley Johnson fires over in stoppage time of Norwich City's 1-1 Championship draw against Derby Co

Bradley Johnson fires over in stoppage time of Norwich City's 1-1 Championship draw against Derby County. Picture by Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

The anguish on Alex Neil's face when Bradley Johnson's volley spiralled over the bar in stoppage time summed up the frustration swirling around Carrow Road.

John Ruddy's spill after being grappled by Jeff Hendrick was the abiding image, but Norwich were equally guilty of the same damaging imprecision in the opposition penalty box.

Lee Grant's flying leap denied Seb Bassong before Gary Hooper was foiled with a more routine stop after the former Celtic hitman had been introduced to embellish City's attacking threat, but Grant and Derby were fortunate to escape twice in stoppage time when Cameron Jerome galloped into the area but his header cleared the bar, and then Johnson's miss effectively sealed City's fate.

Neil adopted a philosophical tone in the aftermath. Norwich controlled the temperature and the territory for large parts of a contest which felt epic in scale befitting the nature of what both clubs are endeavouring to achieve over the run-in.

Months of toil, soaring highs and debilitating lows, come down to collisions like these and moments within the drama, like Ruddy's despair or Johnson's miscued late finish.

City must not lose their sense of perspective in such a maelstrom. The danger, when other promotion rivals continue to soar, is that feeling of impotence at a missed opportunity is simply amplified.

Norwich may still have cause to regret the loss of two precious league points in the final analysis but the volatile terrain of the Championship, the scope for setbacks and unforeseen outcomes, suggests there will be more peaks and troughs before Norwich know their fate.

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City must savour the majesty of their first half goal; a sweet symphony of one touch passing, Alex Tettey's forceful thrust, the sumptuously-timed release of Wes Hoolahan's ball and the incisiveness of Martin Olsson's overlapping run, that left Jerome with a routine task to finish a move of Premier League quality.

That is how good Norwich can be when the parts work in perfect harmony. Too often in a largely dominant first half the final pass, the final touch, lacked the same clinical edge to perhaps put the game beyond Derby before a sour second period.

The Rams may well have arrived shorn of their best striking talent and without a league win in three games but they remain a formidable proposition in the second tier.

A late injury to holding midfielder Omar Mascarell paved the way for a debut to remember for teenage midfielder Jamie Hanson.

Derby may have faltered in recent times but they have responded admirably to the seismic shock of a Wembley play-off defeat. That collective belief seemingly carried them through when Norwich threatened to overwhelm at times, and in makeshift frontman Johnny Russell they had a skilled operator to rival Hoolahan.

Such a heavyweight duel deserved a better climax than Ruddy's aberration. Hendrick's nuisance value was enough to momentarily edge the City keeper off balance, but the midfielder should never have been afforded the chance to craftily manhandle Ruddy on the blindside of the officials, given the presence of team mate Jerome in that screening role.

Ruddy launched a lone protest but the keeper's reaction at the final whistle was telling; dropping to his haunches to hammer his fist into the turf as the Barclay tried to lift him with a rousing show of support.

That is a keeper's lot. The stirring win over Ipswich may have already started to fade with the focus now firmly on what lies ahead, but Ruddy's brilliance to deny Freddie Sears was in its own way just as crucial as Johnson's thumping hit on his left or Lewis Grabban's scruffy second.

Ruddy will respond in the same emphatic fashion he did when questions were asked during Norwich's autumnal downturn. City's number one remains a class act but he knows better than anyone it was a self-inflicted blow. Hendrick should have been forcibly evicted from his personal space before Hanson's corner spun over the goal line.

Norwich were punished in the midst of a hesitant spell after the interval which saw Derby abandon their containment policy to commit men forward.

Yet there was a commendable riposte from Neil's side in the bitter aftermath. Derby regressed to protect their point as Norwich re-asserted the control and territorial hegemony they had previously enjoyed.

Grant's defiance, allied to City's profligacy, ensured the status quo, but against another genuine promotion rival there was much to admire.

Norwich have now played six of the current top eight under Neil, with Middlesbrough yet to come, and only Brentford have prevailed.

That must be a source of comfort should it require the circuitous route to reach the Premier League but a top two finish and automatic promotion could well hinge on what they do against the bystanders.

Huddersfield must be overcome on the road tomorrow, but as they have discovered recently at places like Charlton and Blackburn, Norwich will be tested to the limit again.

That is the very essence of Championship combat.