Birmingham City F.C
Pukki (26, 76), Skipp (90+5)
Pukki makes up for wasted penalty to earn City victory in Birmingham
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Teemu Pukki was in the thick of the action to launch Norwich City 10 points clear at the top of the Championship table, with a brace and a missed penalty in a 3-1 win at Birmingham City.
Pukki had fired the Canaries in front despite a shaky start but then wasted the opportunity to make it 2-0 from the penalty spot before the break and the Blues levelled through Ivan Sanchez.
But good work from Emi Buendia and substitute Onel Hernandez earned a bit of fortune to allow City's top scorer to reclaim the lead with 15 minutes remaining, with his 17th goal of the season and sixth in just four games - before Tottenham loanee Olly Skipp added a late third for his first Norwich goal.
The prime minister may have been able to cautiously set out the ‘roadmap’ to the country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic on Monday but City boss Daniel Farke had already gone public with his roadmap in recent weeks.
It’s been a simple message from the Canaries’ head coach: stop worrying about the pressure of league position and rival teams, just focus on getting to 80 points to secure a play-off place and then 90 for automatic promotion.
To put that into context after this win, as an example, City can win six, draw five and lose three of their remaining 14 games and they would meet Farke’s demands – to almost certainly seal an immediate return to the Premier League and ensure financial security despite the difficulties brought about by the pandemic.
The leaders have earned the right to lay out their roadmap by mixing remarkable consistency with defensive strength and a bit of top-level attacking quality during this strange behind-closed-doors campaign - but they were given a real run for their money on Tuesday night.
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With a strong wind whipping around an empty St Andrew’s - on the same well-worn pitch that the Canaries had beaten Coventry 2-0 on last Wednesday – both teams went with unchanged starting XIs after 1-0 weekend wins.
Battling for survival for a fifth consecutive season and with ever-pragmatic former Middlesbrough boss Aitor Karanka in charge, Birmingham had been expected to set up defensively, as they had in October when City had needed a late Mario Vrancic goal to break their resistance.
Instead the hosts went on the offensive and left the leaders chasing shadows and scrambling the ball clear for much of the first half, leaving Farke fuming as he roared “how many crosses?!” at his players in the 20th minute after just about surviving a sustained spell of pressure.
Neil Etheridge had smothered Kenny McLean’s low shot in one of Norwich’s only attacks but the in-form Pukki looked to have turned the tide with a brilliant finish in the 26th minute.
The Finn was played into the left channel by McLean and thumped a left-footed shot across Etheridge and into the far side of the net.
So when Etheridge clumsily took out Todd Cantwell in the 35th minute to concede a penalty, it looked like the Canaries were about to continue their serene push clear of their promotion rivals – only for Pukki to fluff his lines.
A weak spot-kick from the Finland star was rolled down the middle and the Birmingham keeper was able to save with his shins and keep the score at 1-0. It proved a crucial intervention.
Three minutes later and the hosts were level, with City’s defence getting in a total muddle before Tim Krul made an excellent low save of a thumping shot from Sanchez but being unable to hold the ball, with Sanchez reacting first to poke the loose ball into the net.
There should have been a second for Birmingham before the break as well as Gary Gardner played Scott Hogan clean through, only for the striker to fire high past Krul and the crossbar.
With an injury scare for Max Aarons before half-time as well, an interesting team talk awaited in the visitors’ dressing room but the right-back re-emerged and there were no changes for the start of the second half.
After half-chances for both sides early in the half, with a Buendia corner headed off the line by Jeremie Bela, Farke made his first move in the 65th minute when he replaced Vrancic with Hernandez.
As frustrations continued for City, the Cuban winger's sharp pass allowed Buendia to prod Pukki through but keeper Etheridge was out quickly to clear and Buendia could only fire the loose ball high over the bar.
The pace of Hernandez was crucial to reclaiming the lead in the 76th minute though, holding on to possession in the box and squaring to Buendia, who dummied the ball on to his left and prodded a pass into the box, which deflected kindly for Pukki to poke into the bottom-right corner past the exposed keeper.
In truth, it was a stroke of luck for the leaders but after improving their passing after the break to ensure the hosts ran out of steam, they had gradually worked their way into a better rhythm.
City were able to roll through their substitutions, although Etheridge made a fine save to deny Adam Idah after Hernandez had a shot blocked in the second minute of injury-time and kept bundling his way into the box.
Lukas Rupp then played a pivotal role in a late third goal, after Jordan Hugill had headed a free-kick clear, with Mikel San Jose misjudging the bouncing ball to allow Rupp to tear clean through but then unselfishly tee up Olly Skipp after a lung-busting run the length of the pitch in the fifth minute of added time.
It was far from smooth sailing but the visitors made sure of a fourth successive win, to move 10 points clear at the summit, with Brentford, Watford and Swansea not in action until Wednesday.
Next up for the leaders is a trip to bottom side Wycombe on Sunday, completing a four-game stint against teams battling against relegation - with three wins out of three so far.
NORWICH (4-2-3-1): Krul; Aarons, Zimmermann, Hanley (C), Giannoulis; Skipp, McLean; Buendia (Dowell 90+4), Vrancic (Hernandez 64, Hugill 90+4), Cantwell (Rupp 89); Pukki (Idah 89). Unused subs: Barden (GK), Quintilla, Tettey, Sorensen
Booked: Zimmermann (foul on Bela, 19), Vrancic (foul on Bela, 63)
BIRMINGHAM (4-1-4-1): Etheridge; Colin, Dean (C), Clarke-Salter, Pedersen; Harper (San Jose 70); Sanchez (Valery 75), Sunjic, Gardner (Jutkiewicz 83), Bela (Roberts 83); Hogan. Unused subs: Prieto (GK), Friend, McGree, Halilovic, Leko
Booked: Clarke-Salter (foul on Pukki, 84)
REFEREE: Oliver Langford (West Midlands)