Canaries prove they are fighting fit on way to win

David Cuffley The fitness, or otherwise, of the players Paul Lambert inherited three months ago became a topic for discussion last week after the Norwich City manager lamented the number of muscle pulls and strains that had hampered his team selection.

David Cuffley

The fitness, or otherwise, of the players Paul Lambert inherited three months ago became a topic for discussion last week after the Norwich City manager lamented the number of muscle pulls and strains that had hampered his team selection.

But the eleven who battled for 90 minutes against awful conditions and dogged opponents on Saturday to secure the Canaries' fourth successive home victory in League One were certainly in rude health.

For the first time in Lambert's reign - and indeed, the first time in 47 first team games stretching back 11 months - City did not feel the need to use a single substitute.

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The eight players who returned to the side after missing the Johnstone's Paint Trophy game at Swindon, two of whom had admittedly been serving one-match bans, showed the benefit of their midweek break by lasting the pace to the bitter end to conquer the blustery wind, driving rain and, eventually, the stonewall defence of struggling Tranmere Rovers and send another packed house home happy - in many cases, soaked through, but very happy.

It took City an hour to secure the lead, but once they did, there was no danger of them letting go and their sixth victory in seven league games could have been more emphatic.

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Tranmere, second from bottom, did as caretaker boss Les Parry demanded and strained every sinew to try to defend the point they started the match with.

But for a remarkable save from City goalkeeper Fraser Forster and a bad miss by Chris Shuker, they may even have gone into the final half-hour trying to hold on to all three points.

The decisive moment came on the hour - moments after Shuker had struck the woodwork - when City's Simon Lappin, one who appeared to revel in the conditions, picked out Adam Drury on the left side of the Tranmere penalty area. Drury's attempt to cross was cut out by John Welsh but when his follow-up shot - right-footed, no less - struck Welsh on the arm, referee Darren Deadman pointed straight to the spot.

Wes Hoolahan confidently drilled home his eighth goal of the season, his fourth penalty, and the game was effectively up.

Hoolahan had a hand, too, in the goal that wrapped things up 10 minutes from time.

Lappin's cross from the right eluded the Rovers back four, was retrieved by Hoolahan beyond the far post, and he cleverly threaded

a pass through for defender Gary Doherty to flick the ball home from close range for his first goal of the season.

As the game entered stoppage time, Chris Martin missed the chance to make it 3-0 and take his goal tally into double figures for the season when Hoolahan put him clear and he rounded goalkeeper Luke Daniels but fired into the side netting.

Martin was then denied by a fine save by Daniels after he met Lappin's cross with a firm header.

So City ended with a flourish, even if the opening hour had demanded the patience of Job from players and fans alike.

The opening exchanges produced little of note, although Korey Smith shaved the crossbar and Shuker produced Tranmere's first threatening moment when he set off on a twisting run and struck a low shot that forced Forster to save low to his right.

A Lappin corner almost did the trick when Holt's header was blocked at close range by Zoumana Bakayogo.

But the big scare for City came three minutes before the break when Forster produced a miraculous one-handed save to keep them on terms. Paul McLaren intercepted a pass by Doherty and burst clear, playing a one-two with Michael Ricketts and another with Shuker before sliding in to meet the return pass, but Forster managed to claw his goalbound effort away with his right hand, a stunning effort.

Hoolahan produced a couple of ambitious long-range efforts early in the second half but on the few occasions when Tranmere did counter-attack, their football belied their lowly position.

Shuker, along with McLaren the visitors' most impressive player, did superbly to create a chance for himself after 59 minutes with a fine run and one-two with Ricketts, but as Forster closed down the angle, he managed only to strike the outside of the post.

That miss proved costly when Drury, referee Deadman and Hoolahan combined to break the deadlock. From then, there was only going to be one winner.

City bid to make it seven league wins out of eight against Southampton at St Mary's Stadium next Saturday, a task that may just have been made harder by the Saints' surprise home defeat at the hands of South Coast rivals Brighton yesterday.

The Canaries have a second trip to Southampton in December thanks to the Johnstone's Paint Trophy draw, but there is no question which is the more important of the two dates.

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