Middle men are so vital for Norwich City
BARNSLEY 0, NORWICH CITY 2: While the debate rumbles on about whether Norwich City need to recruit an extra striker for the closing weeks of the season, their midfield men continue to make light of the argument.
There may be something in the Yorkshire air that brings out the best in them, but a week after Henri Lansbury and Wes Hoolahan supplied the goals in an absorbing 2-2 draw at Leeds, it was Andrew Crofts’ turn to regain centre stage with a spectacular double to sink hapless Barnsley.
Crofts produced clinical finishing at Sheffield United last month when he scored both goals in a 2-1 win, and the three midfielders have between them contributed 20 of City’s 54 Championship goals this season – no mean proportion given that Grant Holt’s 13 in the league ranks as the best individual tally.
The Wales international showed his versatility with a splendid header to open the scoring in the 33rd minute and a brilliant left-foot finish seven minutes later that brought comparisons with Justin Fashanu’s BBC Goal of the Season against Liverpool in 1980. It wasn’t quite as stunning, coming from shorter range, but it was still a remarkable piece of skill – and the goal itself could prove to be more significant by the end of the season than was Fashanu’s contribution in a game City lost 5-3 and in a campaign where they finished in mid-table in the old Division One.
Late January and February promised to be an exhausting time for Paul Lambert’s men – and supporters – with the trip to Oakwell their fifth away game in six Saturdays.
But they have come through that schedule with two wins, two draws and a narrow defeat at Burnley and, with a dozen matches to go, are sitting fourth in the table, just three points adrift of second place and seven clear of seventh-placed Leicester, scene of their next away fixture on Tuesday week.
Victory at Barnsley produced some other impressive statistics. It was City’s seventh away win of the season, their second double and their ninth win over the Tykes in the last 11 meetings, stretching back more than a decade – the other two were goalless draws.
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With Andrew Surman making his first start since November, Lambert fielded just one striker with Hoolahan given a roving commission ahead of the midfield quartet, and the Irishman subjected Barnsley to the kind of teasing and torment suffered by many Championship sides this season.
It was Hoolahan who provided the first decent effort of the afternoon in the seventh minute when, after having to nudge referee Eddie Ilderton out of his path, he let fly from 25 yards and ’keeper Luke Steele had to dive to his left to save.
With 16 minutes gone, Hoolahan tested Steele again with a stinging left-foot shot from even further out, the ’keeper making a juggling save.
Out of the blue, Barnsley almost snatched the lead two minutes later as Goran Lovre got his head in the way of a shot by Diego Arismendi and City ’keeper John Ruddy leapt acrobatically to tip the ball over the bar.
Steele was busy again, keeping out a free-kick by David Fox low to his right, but Barnsley’s troubles were only just beginning when right-back Bobby Hassell hobbled off, heralding the arrival of new loan striker Marlon Harewood.
Harewood’s first contribution, from a Lovre cross, was to slice a left-foot shot so badly that it went out for a throw-in.
Barnsley never had as good an opening after that as the Canaries took a grip on the game.
Holt missed one clear chance when Crofts neatly flicked a pass from Fox into his path, but he took the ball too far past Steele and shot into the side netting.
In the 33rd minute, however, the goal City had been threatening duly arrived. Surman nodded the ball into Marc Tierney’s path and the full-back’s cross was met with a fine downward header by Crofts that gave Steele no chance.
Barnsley suffered a more serious blow when skipper Jason Shackell was taken to the dug-out for treatment after a clash of heads with Lansbury – losing his two front teeth, according to his manager – and while he was off the field, Crofts produced his pi�ce de resistance.
The midfielder took a pass from Hoolahan with his back to goal and defender Paul McShane behind him, flicked the ball up with his right and swivelled to hit a perfect left-foot shot inside Steele’s right-hand post.
With two of their first-choice defenders absent before the end of the first period, Barnsley appeared to be prime candidates for a hammering, but City looked reasonably content with their lot and a combination of wayward finishing and the efforts of goalkeeper Steele – the one home player to emerge with real credit from the afternoon’s events – prevented further damage.
Twenty minutes after the break, Crofts was close to completing a hat-trick as his 25-yard drive whistled a yard wide.
Harewood and ex-Ipswich forward Danny Haynes tried to spark a Barnsley revival but City’s back four, with Elliott Ward making several timely interceptions, were not unduly troubled and most of the incident came in the other goalmouth.
In one attack, Hoolahan was clearly wrestled back on the edge of the Barnsley area by Arismendi, but referee Ilderton was unmoved, and when Steele did slip up, fumbling a cross from Lansbury, he was rescued by his defenders.
Holt had chances to add to his personal goal tally when he fired just past the post from Lansbury’s ball eight minutes from time then, with seconds of normal time remaining, he latched on to Ruddy’s huge kick, but Steele closed him down well and blocked his shot with his chest.
Another goal or two would have been useful – and a better reflection of the contest – but City had done enough.