Luton Town 2, Norwich City 3
CHRIS LAKEY Simon Lappin pulled a real rabbit out the hat at Kenilworth Road tonight to hand Norwich City a major boost in their fight against relegation.
Simon Lappin pulled a real rabbit out the hat at Kenilworth Road tonight to hand Norwich City a major boost in their fight against relegation.
With just seconds left on the clock and frantic game with Luton Town tied at 2-2, the Scot stepped forward to take a free kick 20 yards out from the home side's goal.
And with a swing of his left boot, the City man curled a delicious strike over the defensive wall and in past the outstretched and desperate hand of Marlon Beresford and into the top corner for his first goal for the club.
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It was cruel on Luton and came at the end of a topsy-turvy game which was short on quality and full of endeavour, especially from City, who twice came from behind.
In a game delayed by 15 minutes due to an electrical fault on the turnstiles, City almost got off to the worst possible start inside the first minute. Gary Doherty managed to head clear three early crosses, but eventually the ball came to former Canary transfer target Matthew Spring, 30 yards out. The midfielder hit a low right-footed effort which bounced in front of Gallacher and the goalkeeper only just managed to palm the ball away.
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The visitors won their first corner in front of their own fans in the fifth minute. But of more concern was skipper Adam Drury, who won the kick, as he seemed to go head first over the advertising hoardings. Referee Uriah Rennie was quickly on the scene and there seemed to be great concern for the left back, who was shielded from view from the majority of the fans. After a couple of minutes, Drury reappeared looking worse for wear, but was able to rejoin the action although the resulting corner was wasted.
Despite their early goalmouth scare, City started in positive fashion in a 4-3-3 formation with Lee Croft and Darren Huckerby flanking teenager Chris Martin, while Luton went with a regular 4-4-2.
But it was Luton who opened the scoring in the 11th minute after City's familiar defensive failings away from home came to the fore once more. Dickson Etuhu gave the ball away to David Bell on the edge of the City box. The Hatters youngster broke through three weak tackles to reach the by-line. Then he pulled the ball across goal to Bjorn Runstrom who had the simplest of tasks of tucking home with his left foot just six yards out.
The goal galvanised the home side and Spring again tried his luck from distance. This time his superb 35-yard strike beat Gallacher all ends up but cannoned back off the angle of post and bar.
City tried to force their way back into the game and cute play from Huckerby by the corner flag earned them a 19th minute corner. However, Safri's kick was disappointed and went beyond the massed ranks of yellow and green players stationed in the box.
The game was flowing from end to end but low on quality and littered with mistakes, and City seemed to change shape to a 4-4-2 with Huckerby joining Martin, and Lappin moving to the left side.
And it was from a mistake that City equalised. Spring's loose pass handed the ball to Croft 30 yards from goal. He fed the impressive Martin on the edge of the Luton box. He took a touch, pushed the ball past Leon Barnett and finished low and hard across Marlon Beresford and into the corner for his third City goal on 25 minutes. It was the visitors' first shot on goal.
Town forced their first corner minutes later and Gallacher was forced to punch unconvincingly away.
Both sides seemed unable to keep the ball as the game was played at a frantic pace on a bumpy pitch although Bell was a particular bright spark for the home side and constantly turned the beleagured Hughes inside out.
City worked themselves another chance after Safri's free kick was cleared for a corner and from Lappin's kick, Jason Shackell flicked the ball over from eight yards out with his outstretched left leg.
As the half drew to a close, City fashioned themselves a half chance, but Etuhu headed Lappin's right-foot cross high over Beresford's bar.
City were on the up and an incisive Huckerby run set up another chance before the break. The winger got to the dead-ball line and fizzed in a low cross. Martin ran into meet the ball but his left-foot shot was half a yard wide as the sides went in level at the break.
Whatever Peter Grant said to his troops at the interval was clearly not heeded as Luton regained the lead three minutes into the second period.
Barnett hopefully clipped the ball over the top, and Bell easily outpaced Hughes to reach the ball on Town's left. The winger then took the ball round the onrushing Gallacher and to the byline. He crossed and striker Drew Talbot was left with the easy task of heading home into an unguarded goal from six yards out, although the ball only just trickled inside the far post.
On 56 minutes, Luton had the chance to increase their lead. Hughes failed to deal with Keane's deep cross and could only divert the ball into Talbot's path. But the former Sheffield Wednesday striker took one touch too many and the ball rolled out for a goal kick.
City looked a struggling side and as frustration built Etuhu was booked for a tackle on Kevin Foley.
As City looked to bring on a sub, that man Bell nearly made it 3-1 to the home side with a little help from Gallacher. His shot should have been easily gathered by the Scot, but he fumbled and had to scramble to stop the ball trickling over the line.
The substitution was then made as Mark Fotheringham came on for Etuhu after 63 minutes.
For a side that was supposed to be chasing the game, City were offering little in the way of attacking threat. Even when they did force a corner Lappin's delivery was poor again.
And then, out of the blue, on 72 minutes they equalised. They were awarded a soft free kick in Luton's right back area and Safri's inswinging free kick appeared to go straight in beyond Beresford, although Shackell may have got the slightest of touches. It was barely deserved and in fact it was second first shot of any description in the second half.
The game had the feel of a cup tie that both sides desperately wanted to win but neither dared lose.
First up Bell again skinned Hughes but fired over when well placed inside the box on 75 minutes. A minute later, Fotheringham's low shot from the edge of the box was collected by the diving Beresford.
A packed Kenilworth Road was being treated to great excitement and it continued as Luton went close again. Talbot flicked on Spring's corner and Heikkenen was just unable to control his volley at the far post hammered the ball wide.
Next it was Spring who picked up a free kick on edge of the box and his dipping volley from 20 yards was only just tipped over by Gallacher.
Croft tried his luck with a left-foot strike from the edge of the Luton box but Beresford saved and Doherty could not force the rebound home as the Hatters scrambled away.
The home side made the first change as Feeney came on for Runstrom with five minutes remaining. He almost made an immediate impact as his mistimed shot fell to Foley but he fired over.
Both sides huffed and puffed for a winner, but City came closest from a Safri corner. The ball appeared to cross the line from a Doherty header but Emanuel made a desperate clearance as City looked to assistant referee Andy Halliday to signal a goal, but he did not as Luton cleared the rebound.
In the dying seconds of injury time, City had another chance with a free kick on the edge of the box after Barnett fouled Croft. Lappin stepped up to secure his sensational coup de grace.
It was harsh on Luton and they had one more chance as Rennie somehow found more injury time, but Robinson headed wide.
The comeback victory completed City's first double of the season, but more importantly, handed City an unlikely victory.
The 1,194 travelling fans were delirious as City stole the points and a vital leap away from the dreaded relegation zone.
They need another battling performance against Barnsley at Oakwell on Saturday, but this should do wonders for confidence in the camp.