One game too many for City

CHRIS WISE Norwich 0, Preston 3: Norwich City were brought down to earth with an unceremonious bump yesterday as they suffered their heaviest home defeat for 16 months against probably the best side they have played against all season.

CHRIS WISE

Norwich 0, Preston 3: Norwich City were brought down to earth with an unceremonious bump yesterday as they suffered their heaviest home defeat for 16 months against probably the best side they have played against all season.

This was an encounter between the two form sides in the Coca-Cola Championship, with the Canaries having just reeled off six victories on the trot and Preston protecting a 15-match unbeaten run stretching back to the end of September.

But there was only one team in it at Carrow Road as the confident visitors took full advantage of a tired Norwich performance to deservedly come away with all three points.

A beautifully worked goal just before the break from Adam Nowland, who was later stretchered off with a broken leg, put the Lancashire side firmly in the driving seat.

And, try as they might, the hosts just couldn't find a way back into the game after that, with the hectic holiday programme of four games in eight games clearly a factor in their distinctly lethargic display.

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Preston were, quite simply, the better side on the day and it was no real surprise when Billy Davies' well organised outfit went on to add two more goals to their tally midway through the second period, with a Graham Alexander penalty being swiftly followed by a smart finish from the much admired David Nugent.

It was hardly the start to the New Year City fans were expecting after seeing their side finish the old one in such spectacular fashion. But, as manager Nigel Worthington remarked afterwards, nine points from a possible 12 over the festive period was still a more than respectable haul - and now the Canaries are back in the thick of the play-off battle they can afford one or two off-days like these.

The key, as ever, is to avoid making a habit of losing games. City now need to quickly rediscover the sort of form that accounted for Crewe, Southampton, Sheffield United, Burnley and Leicester in the space of 24 memorable days - and if they do that they should be able to bounce back from this shock setback when the league programme resumes after the traditional break for FA Cup third round action.

One sensed this wasn't going to be Norwich day's as early as the second minute when Carl Robinson, who bravely volunteered to play with a couple of cracked ribs, took a painful blow in the side which eventually forced him off at the break - and that's exactly the way it turned out.

With the likes of Paul McVeigh and Darren Huckerby struggling to get into the game, and no-one managing to get their foot on the ball in the middle of the park in the absence of the suspended Youssef Safri, the Canaries simply didn't function as an unit and their opponents were quick to take advance as they dominated long spells of the first half.

Fortunately for City a back four well marshalled by Gary Doherty were maintaining the high standards they displayed in Saturday's battling 1-0 victory over Leicester, and they restricted the dangerous visitors to a series of long-range efforts until disaster struck seconds before the interval.

All the hard work was undone when a big hole opened up in the City defence as Alexander picked up possession some 10 yards outside the box and, with plenty of time to weigh up his pass, he duly threaded an absolute peach of a ball through to Nowland who coolly beat Green to his right with the most deft of finishes.

It was no more than Preston deserved after a first half full of neat, inventive football - and they shrugged of a sickening blow early in the second period to put a resurgent City side firmly in their place.

Just 10 minutes after the restart Nowland displayed his dedication to the cause as he went for a 50-50 ball near the touchline with an equally determined Dickson Etuhu, still a Preston colleague while a possible permanent move to Carrow Road is being discussed. There was a sickening crack as the Lillywhites goal hero crashed to the ground, having come off distinctly second best in what appeared to be a hard but fair challenge for the ball - and it was no surprise to hear afterwards that Nowland had suffered a double break of the right leg.

Preston assistant manager Alan Kelly received a lecture from a policeman as he made his feelings known about the tackle a little too enthusiastically, and the game threatened to boil over a few minutes later when Danny Dichio also went down after a strong Norwich challenge, this time from substitute Ian Henderson.

Kelly again had to be warned to calm it, but the game eventually settled down into a familiar pattern, with Norwich failing to put any real pressure on the Preston goal, and the visitors looking the better side as they coolly knocked it around from the back.

City did have one excellent chance to equalise just before the long injury break, with Jim Brennan almost making a sensational impact from the bench. The half-time replacement for the luckless Robinson found himself with just Nash to beat after latching on to a neat through ball from Dean Ashton. But, sadly for the hosts, he failed to get any power in his shot - and the hosts never had such a clear a sight of goal again as the last season's beaten play-off finalists took a vice-like grip on proceedings.

The game was effectively over as a contest on 68 minutes when Preston were awarded a penalty after Fleming had handled a flick-on from Dichio. The ball hit the City skipper from no more than a foot - but it was no surprise to see referee Nigel Miller point to the spot, or Alexander become the latest player to drill a perfectly placed penalty past Green.

Six minutes later Preston rubbed salt into the home wounds by grabbing a third as Nugent caught Simon Charlton in possession before bursting through the wrong-footed Norwich rearguard and firing home in emphatic style. A scoreline of 3-0 - City's heaviest home defeat since Arsenal came away with a 4-1 success back in August, 2004 - certainly didn't flatter the visitors and they might have made it four soon afterwards when Green spread himself well to deny Patrick Agyemang after the pacey substitute had beaten the offside trap to earn himself a one-on-one with the keeper.

With City's only threat coming from long range efforts from Fleming and Henderson, it was all too easy for a side who will surely be up their challenging for a place in the play-offs at the end of the season.

It's a shame they hadto blot their copybook by some of the most shameless time-wasting seen in these parts for many a year - but from a footballing point of view there was only one team to admire at Carrow Road yesterday, and they weren't the ones wearing the yellow shirts.