Double act get back in the old routine
Chris Lakey Norwich City 4, Gillingham 1: The Carling Cup may be one of English football's poor relations when it comes to priorities this season, but it might just have done the Canaries a big favour last night.
Norwich City 4, Gillingham 1
The Carling Cup may be one of English football's poor relations when it comes to priorities this season, but it might just have done the Canaries a big favour last night.
In recent years managers have vowed to take it seriously and then sent out clearly weakened sides, but with the defeat to Watford still fresh in the memory, Paul Lambert needed to flex a few muscles - and prove to a few doubting Thomases that he has built a team fit to grace Carrow Road this season.
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The defence that was criticised after Friday played again, while the decision to start Grant Holt not only boosted the striker's fitness levels, but also gave us all a reminder what the Holt-Chris Martin partnership is capable of.
Two goals each suggests that both are in fine nick.
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A year ago Holt scored a hat-trick at Yeovil at the same stage of the same competition - what a momentous week that was - and while he fell one short last night, the sight of City's strikers in full flow was more than welcome.
Holt lasted 64 minutes as Lambert coaxes him back to full fitness - after this performance, what price on him starting at the weekend?
That's when the value of the win will perhaps be best assessed as City resume their Championship campaign - although the mental boost provided by the result could last much longer.
Lambert made just three changes - two forced, one voluntary.
Holt came in for Simeon Jackson, sidelined after a gentleman's agreement with Gills boss Andy Hessenthaler when he signed for City; Korey Smith replaced Andrew Crofts, who played for Wales against Luxembourg tonight; and Simon Lappin took Andrew Surman's place on the left side of midfield.
Hessenthaler gave a full debut to Adebayo Akinfenwa, who scored in the 1-1 draw with Cheltenham at the weekend after coming off the bench - one look at his giant frame suggested City's central defenders, Michael Nelson and Elliott Ward, would have their hands full on a night when they were arguably under more scrutiny than anyone.
An early goal was the order of the day, and City had an opportunity within 90 seconds, when Gillingham failed to clear Simon Lappin's looping cross, but Chris Martin could only loop it over the bar.
Gillingham had Jack Payne close on Wes Hoolahan - too close on five minutes which gave City a free-kick in a handy position. David Fox tried to take it quickly - too quickly for referee Andy D'Urso who still had his hand up.
That hand instantly moved to his top pocket to bring out a yellow card - technically correct, but hardly an offence worthy of the punishment.
Fox ignored it and fired in a lovely right-footed free-kick which came off the edge of Alan Julian's left post.
As you might have expected, City were on the front foot and buzzing around the Gills' penalty area, Holt's presence making an obvious difference.
Keeper John Ruddy had been virtual spectator - but when he was called into action on 11 minutes, City went behind.
Michael Nelson looked to have handled the ball on the edge of his own area, but Chris Palmer didn't give Mr D'Urso time to blow his whistle and lashed a left-foot shot which nestled perfectly in the bottom right-hand corner.
The goal gave Gillingham some impetus, with City struggling to maintain their earlier rhythm, Hoolahan turned Payne every which way, but earned only a corner, from which Smith had an effort blocked by Josh Gowling.
But City were the width of the crossbar from going two down in the 24th minute, when Danny Spiller's perfectly-flighted free-kick from the left found Akinfenwa, who had lost his marker, but cracked his header over Ruddy and against the woodwork. Those defensive concerns were raising their ugly heads again, but Chris Martin chose the best way to forget them for a while by drawing City level on 26 minutes.
Holt played his part early on in the move, leaving a Russell Martin cross for fear of being flagged offside. Hoolahan chased, forcing keeper Julian to come out of his area to clear - but he only found Smith, who nodded it down to Holt. The skipper's path was blocked, but a delightful clipped pass set Martin free in the area, and the striker did well to control the ball - albeit against a weak challenge by Mark Bentley - and blast in a low shot from 10 yards.
Hoolahan fired wide after a corner - he should have hit the target - as City pressed forward.
Holt looked to be in the mood to write his own script and on 32 minutes he wrote a telling line when he put City ahead, getting in front of the pedestrian Bentley and heading Russell Martin's inch-perfect cross in from six yards - it was trademark Holt.
Chris Martin struck a lovely free-kick against the crossbar on 39 minutes as Gillingham's defence began to show signs of wear and tear, Gowling and Bentley struggling to contain the front two.
City were given a wake-up call when Ruddy did well to keep out a deflected Payne shot after Hoolahan was caught in possession just outside the area, but Akinfenwa wasted a golden opportunity to level it by putting the follow-up header wide. Payne injured himself in the move and departed - with his replacement, Kevin Maher, placed on Hoolahan watch.
Maher had his own freedom early in the second half as he chased an Akinfenwa ball into the area, but Ruddy got down bravely to put him off - no doubt a confidence boost for the former Everton man.
Perhaps he should have taken a lesson from Holt, who put the game out of Gillingham's reach on 55 minutes, sweeping the ball in from Smith's low cross from the right, with poor old Bentley stuck in second gear. It had been coming - City had built up slowly on the right, waiting for the opportunity and then, when it came, moving the ball quickly and accurately.
Fox played the best pass of the night to Chris Martin, but he was bustled out of his stride and, within minutes, lost his strike partner when Holt, his job done for the night, was replaced by Oli Johnson.
Ruddy did well to keep out a Rooney shot after good work by Akinfenwa, just in case City thought the game was all over - although substitutions and a 13,000-plus crowd did give it the feel of one of those pre-season friendlies.
Chris Martin was taking it deadly seriously and on 79 minutes forced Julian into a good save from another free-kick - although Mr D'Urso got it wrong when he penalised Maher for a foul on Hoolahan.
Martin deserved a second, and he got it in time added on when he slid home from a narrow angle, having picked up the pieces when Johnson outmuscled Gowling.