Norwich City’s rollercoaster continues to thrill
NORWICH CITY 1, LEEDS UNITED 1: Norwich City returning to the Championship was always going to be interesting and exciting at times like this.
There's the renewal of derby hostilities next weekend, after the growing rivalry with Leeds, which was the weekend past, of course.
But perhaps there was always going to be a stage where we asked: what happens now?
City are eighth in the table after 18 games, which most people would have taken at the start of the season. But injuries and suspensions and the ability to cope with them were always put forward as possible problems on the City horizon.
Paul Lambert hasn't had much cash to play with, and while he appears to have spent it as if it's his own, now comes the time when you wonder whether or not City should take a risk and push the financial boat out – or whether it is even possible to steer it in the direction of the Premier League, with the attendant costs.
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There is an immense responsibility on Lambert's shoulders: with little money to spend, does he ask the board to find something from somewhere and hope that any investments reap dividends? Or does he stick with what he has got and keep his fingers crossed that football's nasty little kicks in the teeth go away – and then see where it takes him?
Are we at an imaginary crossroads, or is that being a little over-dramatic?
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City appear to be in rude health: they may have drawn four games in a row, but it's been done against a backdrop of injuries that have robbed Lambert not only of some good first-choice players, but also some you'd probably expect to make the bench look a lot more robust.
That he was forced to start Andrew Surman a little prematurely at the weekend proved how badly injuries have taken their toll on his squad. There should have been eight players not considered for selection – but he had to name two of them, with Michael Nelson on the bench.
It makes you wonder what City would have taken from the last four games had all his players been fit.
Ifs, buts and maybes – relevant nonetheless.
Then there's the football that's being served up – some of the stuff City played in the second half against Leeds wouldn't have been out of place in the top flight.
There was a spell of around 10 minutes where you just wanted to stand up and applaud them for the passing, the inventiveness, the sheer blood-minded refusal to be beaten. Especially by Leeds.
In front of a crowd of 26,315 – the biggest since 1989 and consequently the biggest since Carrow Road became an all-seater stadium – the atmosphere was magnificent.
Leeds' travelling fans played a huge part, of course, and it was their part of the ground which was loudest on 13 minutes when winger Max Gradel, who gave Russell Martin a torrid time in the first half, put them ahead.
Some of the credit goes to a good refereeing decision – which we all deserved after the previous week – after Mick Russell played advantage when Leon Barnett had clearly fouled Luciano Becchio, leaving Gradel the opportunity to fire home.
Martin and keeper John Ruddy were unable to stop the shot – Ruddy may have been unsighted, but he won't have been happy at his part in the goal.
But did the ref miss a handball by Becchio moments before as he jumped with Elliott Ward?
The City defender thought so, but there was too much going on to launch a whole-hearted appeal.
It had been pretty even up until then, but Leeds slowly took a grip on matters and by half-time were the better team.
Lambert had gone for a flat four in midfield, with Surman wide left and Anthony McNamee wide right.
He changed it to 4-3-3 at the break as City had to play catch-up yet again – a disconcerting habit which needs to be broken – with David Fox sitting a little deeper in the middle.
It prevented Leeds from dictating midfield, and City began to come alive.
Andrew Crofts was his usual driving force from midfield and set up Grant Holt, who shot over from the edge of the box. Holt then clattered into Alex Bruce as they went for a cross – someone got the final touch that sent the ball slamming into the inside of the right-hand post, before Kasper Schmeichel grabbed it.
Ward popped up more than once in dangerous positions as City laid siege to the Leeds area, but the extra little spark they needed was provided on 63 minutes. McNamee – who had improved a little from a stale first-half performance – made way for Simeon Jackson, with Wes Hoolahan replacing Surman.
Within minutes, Hoolahan – perhaps unsuited to a 4-4-2 and hence starting on the bench – was wreaking havoc. It was his run into the area after Chris Martin's lovely headed flick-on that earned the corner from which City equalised.
Fox took it and Barnett had plenty of room to head home his first for City and his first for anyone for more than two and a half years.
Schmeichel complained that he had been impeded by Chris Martin – a grievance that simply heightened his petulance towards the referee. Perhaps the reason Becchio seemed to spend so much time falling over, rather than admitting that the superb Barnett actually got the better of him, was that he kept tripping over the toys that had been thrown out of the Schmeichel pram.
Jackson had an opportunity to win it, but blasted over the bar, but it was all about City – the only thing missing was a final product, and that in part was due to some dogged defending by Leeds, Bruce in particular.
You might not like Leeds – the sight of ex-Canary Andy Hughes emptying his nostrils in front of the Snakepit was an example of why they have 'a certain reputation' – but they contributed hugely to a quality game of football. City's part in that suggests that once everyone is back and fit and in good fettle, there could be good things around the corner.
And Ipswich are next up.