Premier League Two: Norwich City U23s 1 Middlesbrough U23s 2
- Credit: Richard Blaxall/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City Under-23s were unable to salvage a point against Middlesbrough after a late goal from striker Carlton Morris had raised hopes for a sparse crowd at Carrow Road this evening.
The young Canaries were looking to bounce back from a poor start to life in Division Two of Premier League Two – as the development competition has been re-branded for this season – losing 3-0 to Newcastle last week and 1-0 to Stoke on Monday, with both games played at Colney.
Goals either side of half-time saw Boro running away with the win but the hosts rallied to reclaim some control and Morris' calm finish in the 79th minute after good work from Todd Cantwell reclaimed some respectability.
With such a young side fielded in Tuesday's EFL Cup thrashing of Coventry, the most recognisable names were Morris and defender Ben Godfrey, who thumped home the final goal in the 6-1 thrashing of the Sky Blues after coming on as a second half substitute.
Boro included centre-back Bernardo Espinosa as an over-age player in their starting line-up, a 27-year-old signed on a three-year deal in the summer when his contract with Spanish top-flight side Sporting Gijon expired.
The visitors arrived having drawn both their opening matches 0-0, at home to Brighton and at Blackburn, and again looked resolute in the first half of the encounter.
City striker Carlton Morris, toughened after a season on loan in the Scottish Premiership with Hamilton, slipped past Espinosa in the ninth minute but saw the Colombian defender lunge back to block his close-range shot.
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Benny Ashley-Seal, playing in an unusual position wide on the right, was agonisingly close to grabbing the lead for the hosts five minutes later after being set free by Ray Grant's classy pass and setting Middleton away on the left, only for the winger's low cross to just evade him at the back post.
Louis Ramsay was in the right place at the right time in the 17th minute to block Boro midfielder Callum Cooke's effort from 10 yards and Brazilian winger Joao Morelli should have put the visitors ahead 10 minutes later but blazed his shot well over the crossbar.
Middleton's short corner saw Grant cross to the back post but Godfrey's header was held by Joe Fryer and Grant found himself booked in the 34th minute after bringing down Espinosa as he charge through the middle.
Boro picked up the pace as the half progressed and Ramsay again popped up just in time to deflect a shot from Arnel Jakupovic behind for a corner in the 37th minute.
The north-east side did find the goal they deserved four minutes later though when Brad Halliday cut in from the right wing and set Rob Tinkler free on the edge of the box, with the midfielder waltzing through the centre of City's defence before slotting past Ben Killip into the bottom-right corner.
Canaries skipper Killip was loudly encouraging his outfield team-mates but Cantwell was the only player enjoying much success, displaying the classy touches and fine range of passing that saw him linked with Arsenal last season.
Michee Efete blasted an effort wide from outside the box as he pushed forward from defence but Boro went into the break with their lead in tact.
The visitors doubled their lead just four minutes into the second half though, Jakupovic flicking on a clearance and Morelli running clean through before rounding Killip and blasting past Godfrey on the line.
The Canaries lost their way after the second goal and Efete, Ramsay and Killip were all forced into goal-saving blocks as Boro started to enjoy themselves.
Dmitri Halajko, with City assistant manager Frankie McAvoy alongside him in the dug-out, brought on Ebou Adams for the quiet Middleton as he looked to turn the tide.
Killip screamed at his defence to get their shape back together but, with first-team manager Alex Neil watching on from the directors box, was forced to hold a long-range effort from Tinkler and Godfrey did well to deny Cooke's shot in the 62nd minute.
Soon after City started to make some progress, with Morris heading wide from a Middleton free-kick from the right and Espinosa booked for bringing down Ashley-Seal, only for Grant to blast his free-kick into the Boro wall.
The hosts finally had some joy in the 79th minute though, with Cantwell central to the move, exchanging passes with Adams before dummying to shoot but instead squaring to Morris in the box to squeeze under the boot of Boro keeper Fryer and halve the deficit.
All of a sudden the young Canaries had a second wind and Cantwell skipped past three challenges before being brought down on the edge of the box by Espinosa, who could easily have been shown his second yellow, but Grant's curling free-kick was held by Fryer.
The energy of Adams had made a difference for City and the former Dartford midfielder had a chance to win it in the 90th minute but couldn't direct Jamal Lewis' cross from the left on target.
Grant's slip allowed Boro to counter in the closing minutes but Killip made an excellent save at his near post to deny Jakupovic after the striker was played through by substitute Junior Mondial – as the visitors made sure of the three points.
Next up for City's U23s is Tuesday's trip to Peterborough United in the group stages of the EFL Trophy.
Norwich U23s: Killip (C); Ramsay, Godfrey, Efete, Lewis; Ashley-Seal, Grant, Sambu, Middleton (Adams 57); Cantwell; Morris. Unused subs: Hallett (GK), Crowe, Jaiyesimi, Odusina.
Middlesbrough U23s: Fryer; Halliday, McGhee, Espinosa (C), Fry; Morelli (Mondal 76), Morris, Tinkler, Tavernier; Cooke (Maloney 81); Jakupovic (Jackson 90+2). Unused subs: Pears (GK), Fewster.
Attendance: 100 (estimated)
Referee: Constantine Hatzidakis