Fizz goes out of Norwich's play-off hopes

CHRIS WISE Burnley 2, Norwich City 0: Norwich City’s outside hopes of reaching the end of season play offs were all but extinguished tonight as they slipped to a bitterly disappointing defeat against the current whipping boys of the Coca Cola Championship.


Burnley 2, Norwich City 0

Norwich City's outside hopes of reaching the end of season play offs were all but extinguished tonight as they slipped to a bitterly disappointing defeat against the current whipping boys of the Coca Cola Championship.

Burnley had suffered six successive defeats going into this live televised encounter and it looked like being seven as the Canaries totally dominated the early stages.

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But Nigel Worthington's side failed to take a single one of the numerous chances that came their way and were made to pay in no uncertain fashion by their relieved hosts who tapped away their first of the night within 20 minutes and then rubbed salt into the wounds by scoring from their first attack of the second half as well.

Andy Gray and Graham Branch did the damage for Burnley and once they had fallen behind the Canaries had little to offer in response with the Clarets' defence being scarcely troubled for the final 75 minutes of the game, after having looked like a complete shambles in the opening quarter of an hour.

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There was no doubt that a 2-0 score line flattered the Lancashire side but it was difficult to feel sorry for Norwich who had simply thrown away a wonderful chance of putting pressure on the sides above them by failing to take their opportunities

As a result of this painful reverse City remained seven points behind sixth placed Preston with just six games left to play and their hopes of reaching the playoffs will surely be extinguished once and for all if the Lilywhites beat Plymouth at Deepdale tomorrow afternoon.

Nigel Worthington sprang something of a surprise before kick-off when he dropped £2.7million front man Robert Earnshaw to the bench to accommodate Simon Charlton in a 4-5-1 formation. Any thoughts that he had selected a defensive formation were swiftly dashed as the Canaries took the game to the opposition in thrilling fashion in the opening stages, carving out four clear cut chances in the opening 12 minutes.

Burnley looked every inch a side who had just lost six games on the trot but you could only admire the way that Norwich set about their task in what was a must-win fixture.

They should have taken the lead after just three minutes when Phil Bardsley's slip let in Leon McKenzie on the left. The City striker picked out the recalled Jonatan Johansson at the back post and when the Finland international's header was only half-cleared McKenzie had a clear target to aim for from just 10 yards out. It looked a goal all the way but unfortunately from City's point of view Jon Harley had got back behind his keeper and was superbly placed to make a magnificent headed clearance on the line.

The Canaries continued to press forward as if their lives depended on it and nearly got in again on 10 minutes when Darren Huckerby latched onto McKenzie's headed flick and bore down on goal through the inside-left channel. Huckerby only had keeper Brian Jensen to beat but shot too close to the big Dane who was able to make a comfortable save low to his right.

In their very next attack Huckerby won a corner and took it short to Charlton who whipped in a cross that Johansson headed onto the crossbar with Jensen well beaten. Then McKenzie pounced on Frank Sinclair's woeful defensive header to earn a clear run on goal only to chip the ball tamely into Jensen's hands as he attempted a lob. The opening stages really were that one-sided.

It was then that you sensed this might not be Norwich's night and that impression was enhanced in the 18th minute when the Clarets scored from their very first attack to register only their third league goal of 2006.

The small group of travelling fans must have been rubbing their eyes with disbelief as Michael Branch's cross from the left caused panic in the City area, with Gray eventually picking up possession and turning Jason Shackell before firing past a helpless Robert Green from just inside the six-yard box.

The game settled down after that, with Burnley finally getting their act together at the back as Norwich lost much of their early momentum. It wasn't long before Worthington had changed his formation back to a more familiar 4-4-2 but that was down to an injury suffered by Adam Drury in a collision with team mate Shackell, with the manager deciding to bring on Earnshaw in his place with Charlton switching to left back.

The change had no immediate impact and it was Burnley who had the next good chance. Harley actually had the ball in the back of the net after racing onto Branch's clever through ball but, to City's relief the linesman's flag had already gone up for offside. That looked a marginal decision but there was actually no doubt that McKenzie had strayed beyond the final defender when he tapped home Earnshaw's half-hit shot in the dying seconds of injury time. As a first half that started so promisingly ended on a distinctly disappointing note.

In stark contrast to the first half Burnley started the second in confident fashion and duly stretched their lead on 51 minutes.

Their second goal came as a result of some excellent play on the left from on-loan Manchester United defender Phil Bardsley. The youngster is a right-back by trade but he clearly has some attacking panache in his locker and used it to good effect to burst into the area before chipping a delightful cross to the back post where Branch was waiting to convert with a firm downward header. That was rough justice on the Canaries who never deserved to be 2-0 down at that stage, but they were clearly struggling to replicate the scintillating form they displayed in the opening 15 minutes and it wasn't until the hour mark that they gave Burnley something to think about as McKenzie's downward header bounced just over the crossbar.

The hosts invited pressure during the closing stages of the game as they famously opted to protect their lead by playing just one man up front but Worthington's men were simply incapable of capitalising and rarely threatened to pull one back.

McKenzie sent a head onto the top of the net during the final quarter while substitute Ian Henderson tested Jensen with another header at the far post but it was still a dreadfully tame end to a game that had started so brightly for the men in yellow and green.

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