Barnett ghosts in to haunt Kasper

NORWICH CITY 1, LEEDS UNITED 1: The biggest crowd at Carrow Road for more than two decades had been warned to expect something a bit special – and they were not disappointed.

Last season’s League One big guns delivered a barnstorming battle that demonstrated why both teams, admittedly greatly modified since promotion, can be regarded as a threat to the rest of the Championship, even if the Canaries and, more especially, Leeds have suffered some strange results on home territory.

Such is the rapid pace of change in football that the starting line-ups on Saturday featured only three City players and four from Leeds who began the corresponding fixture back in March.

On that occasion, Paul Lambert’s men took the honours with substitute Chris Martin’s late goal but the rematch, though it failed to provide a dramatic winner, was unquestionably better quality entertainment.

A corner count of 24 summed up the attacking nature of the contest and it was something of a surprise that so many set-pieces produced just one goal in the shape of defender Leon Barnett’s 65th-minute equaliser for City, his first goal for the club.

On bare statistics, the Canaries have won just once in eight matches but it does not fully reflect the level of their performances, and one point per match in that period has been poor reward for their efforts, certainly over the past four games.

With club bulletins on the progress of players’ charity moustaches proving slightly more accurate than the injury update at Colney on Friday morning, there were two surprises on the teamsheet, with the names of midfielder Andrew Surman and substitute Michael Nelson inked in for the first time since August.

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It was Surman whose pinpoint free-kick delivered City’s first chance of the afternoon as defender Elliott Ward powered a header over the top.

Skipper Jonathan Howson was first to test John Ruddy as Leeds replied, with the ’keeper right behind his long-range effort, but Ruddy was beaten in the 13th minute.

Luciano Becchio may have handled as he challenged Ward for George McCartney’s long ball forward, before Becchio appeared to be fouled by Barnett on the edge of the area, but referee Russell played the advantage and Max Gradel, a menace on the left flank throughout the first half, fired a low drive under Russell Martin’s outstretched leg and through Ruddy’s hands to open the scoring.

City were subdued for a while, but a blatant trip by Alex Bruce on skipper Grant Holt – which earned him a yellow card once he finished receiving treatment – gave Chris Martin a free-kick opportunity and he threaded it low through a crowd of players to force a save out of Kasper Schmeichel.

Martin was involved again when his pass enabled Andrew Crofts to spring the offside trap, but the midfielder took the ball too wide of Schmeichel and the chance was gone.

Leeds finished the half strongly, however, and a stumble by Ward almost handed them a second goal, Becchio cashing in on the error to set up Gradel for a shot that Ruddy had to tip over the top.

Gradel threatened twice more, sidestepping Russell Martin to shoot into Ruddy’s midriff, and whipping in a cross that Howson flicked on, just out Becchio’s reach.

It was a more purposeful City who emerged for the second half in a more attacking formation and in the opening minute, Crofts’ persistence set up Holt, who swivelled to fire just over the top.

They were inches away from an equaliser six minutes after the break when Bruce and Holt jumped for Simon Lappin’s cross at the far post and the ball thudded against the post, it appeared, off the defender’s head, rebounding kindly into Schmeichel’s hands.

City were now breathing down Leeds’ necks and in the 58th minute Surman and Crofts combined to set up Chris Martin, whose trademark shot from the corner of the penalty area was curving just inside the post when Schmeichel dived to his left to push it round the post.

It was time for a double change from Lambert as Wes Hoolahan and Simeon Jackson replaced Surman and Anthony McNamee and within three minutes, City were level.

Hoolahan forced a corner out of Paul Connolly after a touch from Chris Martin almost put him through, and David Fox’s kick was perfectly placed for Barnett to rise and thump a header past Schmeichel, who nevertheless protested vigorously that he was pushed by Chris Martin after ending up flat on his back.

There was the odd flicker from Leeds after that – Ruddy had to smother Bradley Johnson’s header from a Robert Snodgrass corner – but with Hoolahan pulling the strings, the Canaries looked much more likely winners.

Ward, showing his attacking intent as the one regular defender yet to score, forced Schmeichel to dive to his left to save, and Jackson snatched at a Hoolahan cross and shot over the bar.

Three late substitutions by Leeds interrupted a frantic finale, in which Hoolahan curled a left-footer just wide before Ward had a shot saved by Schmeichel, and Crofts hooked another effort off target, but it finished all square for City for the fourth time in a fortnight.

Saturday’s attendance was an all-seater record for Carrow Road and the biggest home gate since April Fools’ Day, 1989, when 26,338 saw City’s Division One title hopes nosedive with a 1-0 defeat by Liverpool.

Next week’s derby against Ipswich is set to top that figure and provide the best home gate since 1984. The same level of entertainment would doubtless be very welcome, for a full house and a BBC audience, but 90 per cent of those present would just be delighted with a home win, never mind the quality.