Norwich City prove they’ve got what it takes
QPR 0, NORWICH CITY 0: 'I thought I'd give the Championship a look – I wish I hadn't bothered.' The comment came from a national newspaper writer who is perhaps guilty of falling hook, line and sinker for the Premier League trap: throw lots of money at it, give it heaps of exposure, and it will be the only thing in your life worth watching. After 90 minutes of entertaining football between first and third in the Championship, that theory is blown right out of the water.
The fact that there weren't any goals and there were few clear-cut opportunities shouldn't detract from the game. City went to Loftus Road, where only Millwall had prevented Rangers from scoring, and repeated the dose – even managing to miss a penalty on the way.
They didn't park the 207 bus in front of John Ruddy in an effort to avoid the fate that had befallen Barnsley, Scunthorpe, Middlesbrough and Doncaster: instead, Paul Lambert stuck with what he knows best and gave the stick a damned good shake.
The record of scoring in consecutive away games was ended at 32 – but would have been extended had Wes Hoolahan been able to stretch his own penalty scoring sequence to three in three.
But if QPR are the yardstick by which City measure themselves, then things are stacking up nicely. The accusation had been that City hadn't played any of the big boys in their opening 10 games. They have now and they weren't overawed, weren't beaten into submission by any stretch of the imagination – weren't exposed as Championship fraudsters.
All of which does send out a message to the rest of the league – City are capable of sticking around in a division which has a lot more character and interest about it than the trumped-up top flight.
There's little doubt that Rangers have some quality: the fact they didn't show it on Saturday was largely due to City's ability to nip problems in the bud. Adel Taarabt's ability is unquestioned, but when City surround him, cut off all avenues, and leave him circling with the ball looking for an outlet, you know you've got it right. Jamie Mackie is even more revered by Rangers fans, but he was anonymous.
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In the opening moments he legged it down the right flank, but was stopped by a perfectly-timed Adam Drury tackle. Aside from inadvertently guiding a long-range shot by a team-mate just past Ruddy's left-hand post, he did nothing. Again, credit to City's defence: Elliott Ward and Leon Barnett were excellent.
The fact that Ward picked up his fifth booking of the season, for a foul on Taarabt, was inevitable. It means he misses tomorrow's visit by Crystal Palace, but of more concern might be the calf injury suffered by Drury just before the hour mark. Two disruptions in a back line that did so well on Saturday is bad luck – but much of what happens in football is put down to Lady Luck.
She wasn't in evidence on Saturday, which makes for a nice, level playing field. Rangers started well, showing a pace and power that is usually more evident further up the footballing ladder. But they almost slipped up when Holt got between the two centre backs after jumping to meet Ward's long punt and squeezed in a shot from under his feet that keeper Paddy Kenny stopped with his right forearm.
All Rangers had to show for their efforts were shots that Ruddy had no problem gathering up.
If Holt's chance was a good one, then he presented Hoolahan with a golden opportunity on 28 minutes when he tried to get to the little man's cross only to find Clint Hill all over him like a cheap coat on the six-yard line. Referee Andy Penn pointed to the spot and booked Hill, although as last man he might have been relieved the punishment wasn't worse.
Hoolahan scored from penalties against Leicester and Bristol City, so it was no surprise that he went for the same sweet spot – bottom right-hand corner. This time, instead of sticking it inches inside of the post, he put it inches outside.
The obvious question is: what might have been? Apart from a Holt effort that he sliced wide after a heavy first touch, City didn't come much closer to scoring. Some teams might have collapsed in the circumstances, but City stuck to their guns and when half-time came they were more than holding their own.
Rangers' best chances to nick it came when Barnett appeared blinded by the sun, judging by the way his hand went to his forehead as he tried to track Matthew Connolly's cross. He missed it, but Heidar Helguson sneaked in, jumped high, but put a free header over the bar.
Much of what City achieved on Saturday was due to Andrew Crofts, who was again excellent in the holding midfield role. His ability is in the timing – he cuts out runners, he distributes well, he tackles superbly. But even with timing that accurate, it's hard to see how he managed to run towards his own goal, through Rangers players, and head away a goalbound Kaspars Gorkss header.
By that time Taarabt had been replaced: he'd run out of steam a little and his attempt at a Ronaldo free-kick, when he tried to chip the wall but simply chipped the whole goal, was perhaps the signal that what was ultimately a frustrating day had come to an end.
Rangers tried the kitchen sink ploy in the final minutes, but City's defence was never going to buckle with the finish line in sight.
When the final whistle did arrive, City players rightly turned to more than 3,100 travelling fans who had helped swell the attendance to a six-year high of 18,059, to say thank you.
They'll be back at Carrow Road twice this week, when City will be hoping to take all six points against Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough, teams who are struggling in the bottom five of the table.
A year ago you may have looked at both of those fixtures with a degree of trepidation, but the weekend performance was such that you probably feel more comfortable and confident – and if the players feel that way too, there's no reason why City shouldn't keep punching above their weight in a division which is arguably putting its senior partner to shame.