Norwich City talisman missed as unbeaten run ends
NORWICH CITY 0, PORTSMOUTH 2: The absence of skipper Grant Holt allied with a home defeat for Norwich City is the perfect way to start the Great Norwich City debate.
It's been going on for a while now, but whenever Holt doesn't play and things don't go City's way, his absence is often taken as the reason.
The factual evidence from this season shows he has missed two games – Watford on the opening day, Pompey on Saturday, and City have lost both times.
But last season he missed 10 games. City won six and lost four – one on penalties in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy, at Millwall and Leyton Orient, and at home to Carlisle when, despite what they say, it really didn't matter because the title had already been wrapped up.
There is no concrete evidence to suggest his absence contributed to Saturday's defeat – although those on the 'yes it did' side of the debating chamber will point to chances that fell City's way which weren't taken and say that Holt would have scored.
It's a conjectural argument. You believe Holt would have scored, someone else doesn't.
But that doesn't mean to say Holt wouldn't have improved City's performance in front of goal which, until a couple of mistakes in the final 20 minutes, was just about the only place where things didn't quite happen for City on Saturday.
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If proof were needed of Paul Lambert's need to bring in new players during the January transfer window, then this was probably it.
While Simeon Jackson has plenty of pace and works the channels well, his miss in the opening 20 minutes was a poor one: with only the keeper to beat he mishit his shot and Jamie Ashdown was able to gather with surprising ease. Had Holt still got his derby day head on, you'd have fancied him to bury it. But Jackson and Holt are two very different players, which is why Lambert wants that extra help next month.
Holt's absence changes the game for his team-mates – if there was a replacement in the squad, it wouldn't have that effect.
Clearly one man doesn't make a team, and even without him, some of City's play on Saturday, particularly in the first half, was of the highest order. It's not an optical illusion, City really have worked on passing the ball more.
There's a patience among the back four to knock it around between them and include goalkeeper John Ruddy if necessary, rather than heaving it upfield and perhaps losing it.
David Fox was the fulcrum, spraying it around, taking responsibility for switching play, and generally controlling midfield.
Aside from a sticky opening, when Liam Lawrence had Ruddy diving to his right for a free-kick that whistled past the post, City were in complete control of the first half.
Simon Lappin, Wes Hoolahan and Jackson combined well down the left, forcing Aaron Mokoena into a nervous looking clearance which didn't bode well for an impoverished Pompey side who could name only five players on their bench.
City were beginning to settle around the visitors' area and when Hoolahan won a free header and Chris Martin nodded it into Jackson's path, the inevitable was ready to happen, until Jackson pulled the trigger and fired a blank.
Jackson glanced a header from another wicked Fox corner wide before Martin forced Ashdown to get down well to his left to save a good effort. It wasn't a bad effort by Ashdown either – the keeper had undergone surgery just nine days earlier and could be forgiven for thinking his reappearance at Carrow Road would bring back memories of an unhappy loan spell here in 2006. He was one of the Famous Five - the number of keepers used by then manager Peter Grant that campaign, although his stay was just two games, the second of which was a 5-0 defeat at Stoke when he was sent off.
If Martin and Jackson weren't enough of a threat, there was always the sight of the midfield four backing them up.
When Portsmouth did get out of their own half, which wasn't often, Dave Kitson and David Nugent appeared to forget the offside rule - their best/only decent move of the first half ended with the ball in the net and a flag raised. The fear was that it would happen again, and would then have disastrous consequences. There were opportunities to have made that scenario less relevant.
Simon Lappin – whose duties as a makeshift left-back are worthy of praise – swept in another of his wicked, curling crosses for Martin at the far post. His header was goalbound, but it hit the back of defender Joel Ward's head and went out for a corner. No wonder Martin was left with his hands in the air in an exasperated pose that almost said 'this is not going to be our day'.
Andrew Crofts was more wasteful in time added on when, after Jackson's lay-off in the area, he opted to place his shot rather than put his foot through the ball.
Pompey were poor in the first half, in a similar way to Hull, who came here in September and were under the cosh almost all game – and scored twice in the last 10 minutes to claim an unlikely victory. The difference on Saturday was that Pompey improved after the break, Nugent pushed to the right of an attacking trio in a 4-3-3 formation which reduced the pace the City full-backs had enjoyed.
While it didn't exactly swing the game in their favour, it certainly curtailed City's marauding instincts.
Lawrence went close again with a couple of efforts, the second after Crofts lost possession, while Hoolahan tested Ashcroft's recovery with an effort from the left of the area.
Henri Lansbury was starting to warm to the task, but just when it looked like City may have drawn Pompey's sting, the visitors went ahead with a goal borne out of the Premier League. Nugent and Kitson had done absolutely nothing for 73 minutes and had looked totally out of sorts. But then Nugent got away from Lappin deep inside his own half on the right. Lansbury tried a naughty clip of his heels and missed, and Nugent went past Ward before getting into the area and squaring it for Kitson who, from three yards out knocked it past Ruddy.
City pressed forward in a kitchen sink movement and Ashdown was grateful when Kitson got his head in the way of Ward's goalbound header.
Everything was thrown in Ashdown's direction, but the inevitable happened as they were caught on the break. Nugent caused the problem again, heading into the area and forcing Barnett into a foul which produced a second yellow card, and an angry reaction from the player who, in throwing the ball at referee Simon Hooper faces the possibility of more than just the mandatory one-game suspension.
The frustration of losing when you should win was evident, but the City fans' reaction suggested they realised it was one of those days.
All good things, like six-game unbeaten runs, come to an end, but at least City did it with a bit of style.