Lion-hearted City have final say
David Cuffley Norwich City 2, Charlton Athletic 2: Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, and if that is an exaggeration in the case of Norwich City and Charlton Athletic, their fifth meeting in the space of nine months certainly seemed to generate a few more sparks than the average League One encounter.
Norwich City 2, Charlton Athletic 2
Familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, and if that is an exaggeration in the case of Norwich City and Charlton Athletic, their fifth meeting in the space of nine months certainly seemed to generate a few more sparks than the average League One encounter.
The personnel may have changed greatly - at least on the City side of the fence - since last season's four fixtures, each one awful in its own way.
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But there was certainly enough edge, on and off the field, to make this a compelling post-relegation scrap between two sides whose painful exit from the Championship is still fresh in the memory.
Morning leaders Charlton looked the strongest side City have faced in their league programme so far - despite Colchester's seven goals on the opening day of the season - but their hosts did not perform like a team that started the day 11 points behind them.
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With manager Paul Lambert recalling Wes Hoolahan and Darel Russell, two of his best available players whatever the requirements of team shape, and with some lion-hearted performances elsewhere, most notably from skipper Grant Holt and midfielder Korey Smith, the Canaries were well worth the point they gained from a determined fightback after going two goals down.
That this was a “big match”, an occasion in League One terms doubtless contributed to the entertainment, and the question now is whether City can summon the same energy and spirit for three less appealing league games in the space of eight days.
Whatever his private thoughts, Lambert was making no promises about a promotion challenge after Saturday's game, well aware that his team is already 13 points behind the new leaders. But any side with serious thoughts of getting out of the third flight cannot afford to entertain doubts at the prospect of taking on Gillingham, Leyton Orient and Bristol Rovers.
City began brightly enough against Charlton and almost opened the scoring from their first corner. Simon Lappin's flag-kick was met by a powerful header by Jon Otsemobor that goalkeeper Rob Elliot pushed away, with Michael Spillane's follow-up effort blocked just yards from the line.
It was, however, the visitors who prospered from a corner in the 18th minute. Lappin conceded it, Jonjo Shelvey took an outswinging kick from the right and Deon Burton, whose hat-trick rubber-stamped City's relegation at The Valley in May, got ahead of Otsemobor to score with a diving header.
City should have been level after 24 minutes when Smith did superbly to rob Jose Semedo and put Holt through with a slide rule pass, but the striker blazed his right-foot shot wide.
On-loan goalkeeper Fraser Forster twice kept the Canaries in touch, keeping out a long-range effort from Thierry Racon then Nicky Bailey's shot from a tight angle, but it was 2-0 five minutes before the break. Adam Drury's free-kick was cleared and, from a swift counter-attack, Shelvey scored with a simple header from Lloyd Sam's cross.
Hoolahan's second goal of the season reduced the arrears in the 44th minutes when he latched on to a quick throw-in from Holt and advanced ahead of Miguel Angel Llera before beating Elliot with a rising left-foot shot.
If that goal alone didn't give City enough fresh incentive, Charlton skipper Nicky Bailey's reckless kick at the back of Holt's legs in the final minute of the half may well have done so. Referee Steve Tanner settled for a lecture rather than a card of either colour and, if reports of a tunnel bust-up between players on both sides are to be believed, it may just have lit the blue touchpaper for some second-half fireworks.
Four minutes after the break, Lappin and Hoolahan combined to set up Smith for a powerful effort from 25 yards that skimmed the crossbar.
Excellent work by Holt almost provided the breakthrough after 65 minutes when he managed to cross from the left, Elliot palming the ball away towards Smith on the edge of the six-yard box, but it dropped unkindly for the midfielder and he was unable to get in a shot.
The Canaries gained the upper hand in a sustained assault for much of the half, but were almost undone 20 minutes from time by a swift counter-attack, Forster tipping Shelvey's shot past the post.
A brilliant one-handed save by Elliot denied Smith an equaliser in the 83rd minute when Holt nodded Hoolahan's cross into the midfielder's path. He did well to keep his shot down after an awkward bounce but Elliot clawed Smith's effort away one-handed.
McLeod missed a chance to wrap up the points five minutes from time when an error by Otsemobor enabled Kelly Youga to put the substitute clear, but he poked his right-foot shot past the post as Forster came out.
Charlton were left to regret that miss two minutes into stoppage time, when Holt beat Elliot to a deflected cross by substitute Chris Martin and his header looped in.
The goal prompted joyous celebrations among players and fans and some less than friendly exchanges between rival fans in the Jarrold Stand.
The two sets of supporters will doubtless look forward to renewing acquaintances in City's penultimate away match of the season in April, when it must be hoped it will carry equal significance for both clubs - of a rather different nature to their meeting in May.