Photo Gallery: A missed chance or blessing in disguise for Norwich City?
Norwich City 1, Leicester City 2: Pragmatism carried the day, but that inescapable truth should not mask a missed opportunity for Norwich City.
Leicester's scarf-waving contingent can dare to dream about walks down Wembley Way and all the romantic notions associated with a competition now firmly dwarfed by the Premier League.
When the dust settles, Nigel Pearson's men must prepare later this week for a Championship away trip to Derby in their bid to revive what looks increasingly like fading play-off hopes. Paul Lambert's collective welcome Manchester United to Carrow Road this weekend. Therein lies the crucial difference.
That is not to denigrate a wonderful piece of English football's heritage. A competition rich in historical prestige that in its purest form can still encapsulate all the richness and diversity of our national game.
Rather, that is to view the FA Cup through the hard-headed practicalities of Norwich's league survival; a cause that seems increasingly plausible with each passing week of top-flight action. The seeds of this painful cup disappointment were sown in sustained success against the biggest and best over recent months.
Lambert is right to preach caution, to re-emphasize nothing has been achieved yet – but in the points total accumulated and a widening gap to those in greatest peril, Norwich fans rightly could have expected FA Cup progress against a mid-table Championship outfit.
One, it is worth pointing out, that could park a �5m defender in Matt Mills on the substitutes' bench. Leicester, under Pearson the second time around, may be a work in progress, but during Sven-Goran Eriksson's reign they lavished sums on the playing staff. Pearson's men might just come up short this time of asking in trying to emulate the Canaries – but there was enough evidence at Carrow Road to indicate they are an emerging force at that level of the game.
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Losing to Leicester was not a shock in the annals of the competition's biggest upsets. There was no shame in defeat to a team with a multi-million pound strikeforce. But given the high-profile absence of Grant Holt and his ilk after league exertions, Lambert left himself open to inevitable questions when a Norwich roster minus some of its biggest hitters failed to do the business. In itself, a rare occurrence.
That Lambert was willing to countenance the possibility was less indicative of lukewarm disinterest in cup progress. More a re-affirmation of the primacy of the club's Premier League plight. Lambert has turned squad rotation into an art form in recent months. City's starting line-up has displayed an impressive degree of fluidity and flexibility. Results have flowed in consistent fashion to underline both the quality and depth of the resources at his disposal. It worked at Bolton in mid-September when Lambert made an improbable six changes and returned from The Reebok with a first Premier League win of the campaign.
It worked when he introduced a quartet of new faces to beat Newcastle at Carrow Road in early December to move inside the top 10. It worked at QPR in the first game of 2012 when another five changes included a first league start of the season for Simon Lappin. It didn't work against Leicester, with the path to an all too rare FA Cup quarter-final seemingly at their mercy.
Leicester were better in every facet of the contest. Defensively strong whenever Norwich threatened to muster the sustained waves of pressure that home fans almost treat as a right under the Scot. A midfield duo of Neil Danns and Richie Wellens harried and hassled City's more creative mix.
David Fox was forced to throw himself into challenges with all the relish of a combative ball winner in the first period as Danns set the tempo. And up front, Jermaine Beckford and David Nugent combined to illustrate why they have attracted such bloated transfer sums.
Neither has proved capable of cutting it week in, week out in the Premier League. Unlike Norwich. But on this given day they were more than a match for a Canaries' backline that struggled to stop the supply lines from the direct Lloyd Dyer and the intelligent Ben Marshall. That, in essence, is the quintessential beauty of the FA Cup. The greatest leveller there is. Why Birmingham could return from Stamford Bridge with a replay and Stevenage earn a trip to White Hart Lane after holding Champions League certainties Tottenham.
Leicester's game plan was simple. Hit Beckford and Nugent at the earliest opportunity and play from there. A tactic designed to bypass the midfield mastery Norwich had established at Swansea the previous week with Wes Hoolahan added to that particular concoction in favour of Andrew Surman.
Norwich's management will be livid Leicester's opener came aerially from a set piece. A side feted for its own prowess was forced to sample the same medicine. Sean St Ledger rose behind Steve Morison to divert Marshall's early corner past the exposed Jed Steer. Emboldened, the Foxes continued to probe for weaknesses. Elliott Ward's excellent anticipation foiled Beckford with Dyer's surge and tailor-made cross arrowing towards the ex-Everton man.
Elliott Bennett offered Norwich's most profitable attacking outlet. One early sharp pass teed up Morison to rifle over. Another allowed Simeon Jackson to fire goalwards. Bennett anticipated the trajectory better than anybody else on the pitch; certainly better than Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel who only had eyes for the ball to wipe out Bennett in the process. Pearson labelled the penalty award 'harsh'.
Few in the visiting ranks pleaded a case for leniency, apart from the embarrassed Danish stopper. Schmeichel's athleticism temporarily halted Hoolahan until the Irishman reacted to slot in the rebound. Many visiting teams have wilted at Carrow Road during Lambert's tenure. Buried under a collective force of will. Pearson's side has a steel reflective of the manager. Ward scrambled Wes Morgan's back-heel off his own goal line. Dyer slammed into the side netting. Leicester carried the greater attacking menace. When Beckford flicked a high, hanging ball into the path of Nugent there was a crushing inevitability at the outcome. Leon Barnett was squared up then bypassed with ease before a calm guide past the advancing Steer.
Lambert wanted a replay like Rangers want a financial audit, but there was an undeniable sense of urgency from the hosts in the frantic final minutes. Hoolahan's body swerve left Wellens stranded, only for his curler to drift a yard wide of Schmeichel's far post. Russell Martin and Barnett provided nuisance value in the opposition box.
Norwich had sparked off the twin arrivals of Aaron Wilbraham and James Vaughan – no doubt an admission for some Lambert wanted to keep his powder dry.
If City take anything from the wreckage of another meek cup surrender it should be the sight of Vaughan fit and firing. The striker arrived in Norfolk with arguably the greatest pedigree of all Lambert's close-season acquisitions. A catalogue of injuries to interrupt a blossoming career merely testify to the 23-year-old's mental strength. Lambert appeared to dispense extra words of encouragement on the touchline as Vaughan prepared to make his bow.Football at this rarefied level is as much about mind as body.
Should his not let him down, Vaughan will undoubtedly score goals over the Premier League run-in. The Birmingham-born frontman has that imperceptible gift to sense an opportunity inside the parameters of the penalty box.
A deflected strike against St Ledger was impressive for both speed of thought and deed.
Vaughan has that capacity for telling contributions which can ensure Lambert and the majority of another 26,000 plus crowd achieve the only target they both crave.
Inside the camp, rest assured the Canaries will know what finishing higher up the league table means. Each extra end-of-season place in a northerly direction brings with it a handsome six-figure sum as reward.
Far in excess of the revenue from edging past Leicester at home in the fifth round and travelling deeper into this season's FA Cup. Romanticism may still have a place in top level football; be in no doubt it is subordinate to finance.