Thrilling opener for Yorkshire trilogy
LEEDS UNITED 2, NORWICH CITY 2: Part one of the Yorkshire trilogy has been completed – and if parts two and three are anything as good, then Norwich City fans are in for a treat.
After the brilliant 'Elland Road Chronicles' of Saturday afternoon, City have 'Rovers Revenge' against Doncaster tomorrow followed by 'Tyke That' against Barnsley on Saturday.
There will be some major players missing – Leon Barnett's absence from the dressing room was written into the script a week earlier against Reading, but then up popped the unexpected story lines of Chris Martin (out for 'a while' with a hamstring problem) and the newly-dubbed 'King of Pain' Simon Lappin, who was lying in a hospital bed in Leeds on Friday with an appendix problem that left manager Paul Lambert one short of a chorus line on the subs' bench.
Lambert will undoubtedly bring in some new understudies to bolster the show before tomorrow's game, but what he can rely on is that those cast members who are being asked to do a turn won't be fluffing their lines.
Leeds was a big test of City's credentials. The two clubs' fortunes have moved on parallel lines in the last year or two, albeit with City edging ahead: they came up from League One together and they continue to impress at the business end of the Championship. Even the managers, Lambert and Simon Grayson, share similarities: both are 41, both finished playing five seasons ago, both have a refreshing footballing ethos.
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But with his staffing levels being punctured three times in a week, Lambert was up against it. Leeds don't do 'sit back and see how it goes' football – just like City. They were expected to go hell for leather, and they didn't disappoint. A crowd of almost 32,000 fans, including 3,000 who drove into snowy south Yorkshire wearing Canaries colours, insisted on it and when the curtain came down after an hour and a half of some of the best football you will see outside of the top flight this season, it was fitting that a whole ground rose as one to acclaim the principals.
A point each had to be fair enough, despite Grayson's assertion that the chances his team had, particularly in a first half they dominated, should have resulted in enough goals to put the game to bed. That they didn't is the fault of those who missed them, and to the credit of those who prevented them.
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And while Leeds have their Tetley's, City have their Whitbread – Zak, the American-born footballer with the thickest Scouse accent in Norfolk who has spent more time in the treatment room than on the pitch since joining from Millwall 13 months ago.
Only in recent weeks has he shown the sort of skills that once prompted the former Canaries favourite and coach Ian Crook to say he would become one of the best defenders to ever wear the yellow and green colours of Norwich City.
On Saturday, he proved what Crook had been talking about.
It was a first half that needed him and Elliott Ward to prove that Barnett's absence, most probably until the end of the season, would prove to be no more than a minor irritation. They'd hardly played together before, but needed everything to stick like glue in the face of Leeds' white storm. It was a tough task, and one which they just about weathered, although they will be forever indebted to the Elland Road woodwork which denied Luciano Becchio and a profligate Jonny Howson, who, in a matter of a second or two, somehow managed to find just the back of Russell Martin and then the crossbar when he really should have scored.
City were breached once in the half, when a cross from the left by Max Gradel was flicked on by the head of the excellent Robert Snodgrass – who used to play alongside Lambert and City's Wes Hoolahan for Livingston – for Becchio to jump above Adam Drury at the far post and bundle over the line with what looked like his right shoulder.
It was a goal that had been coming for a while, but Leeds will kick themselves for failing to increase the advantage.
David Fox had City's best efforts, from long range, one of which forced Kasper Schmeichel into a full-length diving save to his left, but they were finding it hard to get at Leeds.
If it was a case of getting to half-time just a goal down, then someone forgot City's penchant for rewriting the script as they reproduced their habit of scoring in time added – this time at the midway point.
Andrew Crofts crossed it in high from the right, Holt rose above Eric Lichaj to nod it down for Henri Lansbury, who cracked it in from 10 yards and then embarked on a goal celebration that looked like a man washing his hair while trying to shake ants out of his pants.
No matter, the goal may have worked wonders for City, who were a much better outfit after the break as the two warriors went toe to toe.
Gradel fired over from a position reminiscent of Lansbury's when he scored, but City were almost ahead on 67 minutes when Wilbraham – whose efforts will surely silence a few of those who jump to doubt him after just a handful of appearances – nodded down a Martin free-kick for Holt, who twisted to try and flick it past Schmeichel with his right foot, but saw the ball come back off the post.
City had turned the game around and a minute later they were ahead. Ward won good possession some 30 yards out, slipped the ball forward to Crofts who, from a central position, looked to dummy Leeds into thinking he was about to pull the trigger. While Leeds were waiting, Hoolahan was finding space on the right side of the area – Crofts found him, but Hoolahan still had plenty to do in adjusting his body weight before the outside of his left boot sent the ball goalwards. Lichaj's sliding touch took it over the line, but wasn't enough to put the dreaded letters OG next to his name.
Leeds, as expected, fought back, but while Whitbread brilliantly foiled Snodgrass he could do little to avoid Becchio getting his head to Alex Bruce's ball in from the left which left substitute David Somma with the opportunity to make a name for himself with his first touch. His volley was sweet and found the bottom right-hand corner – a skill learned during his loan spell under Chris Sutton at Lincoln City last season perhaps.
Leeds had to attack, their fans demanded it, and in the final 10 minutes there were two occasions when they must have thought they'd won it. The first came when Snodgrass sent a teasing cross in from the left. It was Somma's all the way, but somehow Whitbread got in front of the player, under the ball and headed it away – it was a magnificent clearance.
Then, in time added on, Somma played a one-two with sub Billy Paynter just inside the City area. It was Paynter versus Ruddy. Paynter got in a shot and, while Whitbread may have done enough to put him off, it still needed Ruddy to palm it away.
There was to be no dramatic finale on an almost epic afternoon of football, but if Norwich City remain where they are for the rest of the season, they will perhaps look to the performances of Zak Whitbread and John Ruddy at Elland Road and pass them an Oscar.