Middlesbrough 0 Norwich City 1 – Hernandez fires Canaries into superb position to close on promotion
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
An outstanding seventh win on the spin has pushed Norwich City five points clear at the top of the Championship table, with a hard fought victory at Middlesbrough leaving the leaders in firm control of their promotion fate.
Onel Hernandez fired his eighth goal of the season to edge the Canaries in front nine minutes into the second half but a superb goal-line clearance from skipper Christoph Zimmermann was needed to hold on to the vital three points.
It leaves Daniel Farke’s team knowing that five wins from their final seven matches will guarantee a return to the Premier League, with home games against lowly QPR and Reading approaching.
It’s the first time a Norwich team have won seven games in succession in the second tier since Nigel Worthington’s team managed the same feat on their way to the title back in 2004.
The big news ahead of kick-off was Sheffield United losing 3-2 at home to Bristol City, opening up a chance for City to go seven points clear of the third-placed Blades with a win – a chance they grabbed with both hands on Teesside.
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‘We are top of the league’ chanted the City fans ahead of kick-off, knowing their team were safe in top spot, with Leeds moving up to second after a 3-2 home win over Millwall.
Boro dominated much of the first half but it was City who had the better chances, with former Canaries midfielder Jonny Howson wasting a host of shooting opportunities from the edge of the box, testing Tim Krul with three weak efforts.
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The leaders looked dangerous on the counter though, with Hernandez’s effort thwarted by Ryan Shotton in the 12th minute, only for the hosts to go up the other end and Ashley Fletcher to curl just beyond the left-hand post after a wayward Kenny McLean header.
Darren Randolph kept Boro level in the 14th minute of a lively battle, with Hernandez getting to the bye-line on the left and cutting back to Teemu Pukki, whose bouncing shot was pushed clear by the Republic of Ireland number one on the stretch.
McLean fired just wide from 30 yards soon after but Ben Godfrey was needed to turn a Fletcher shot behind after Emi Buendia was robbed in midfield
It was England U20 defender Godfrey to the rescue again in the 27th minute, bravely heading behind at the back post as Fletcher swung at the dropping ball after a Shotton long throw was nodded on by Dani Ayala.
Buendia’s free-kick from the left was headed up and former City centre-back Ayala had to head a McLean volley over as the ball dropped to the Scot on the edge of the box.
Pukki – without a goal in five games for club and country – was played clean through by Shotton’s poor control from a Krul kick with six minutes of the half remaining but a poor second touch allowed Randolph to come out and smother the Finn’s shot.
City’s top scorer just couldn’t reach a cross from Stiepermann from the right in injury-time either, which Randolph swatted away at his back post to keep the score at 0-0 at the break.
Boro very nearly claimed the lead within two minutes of the restart though, as Ayala gave McLean a little nudge as they rose to meet another Shotton long throw from the right, but could only head against the outside of the base of the right-hand post.
Zimmermann was booked for cleaning out Britt Assombalonga after Tom Trybull had been unable to steal possession on the slide early in the half, with Ayala also doing well to block a Buendia shot.
City worked the breakthrough in the 54th minute though, with Stiepermann superbly holding up play under pressure on the right and swinging in a cross which Ayala headed up, Fletcher scuffing the clearance, Godfrey and Buendia robbing Howson, Hernandez dancing across the box and then firing low into the bottom-left corner – right in front of more than 1,300 travelling fans.
The celebrations were wild, with the Cuban winger booked for the overexuberant scenes with the City fans, and they were nearly celebrating again within 10 minutes.
Stiepermann threaded a trademark pass to play Pukki into the right channel but the 24-goal striker just hesitated for a second and Aden Flint was able to slide in and divert the low shot wide.
McLean burst forward in the 68th minute with Pukki free to his left but opted to shoot instead and only blasted against Dael Fry’s shins. Buendia and Hernandez wasted good shooting opportunities as the home crowd grew frustrated, before City’s centre-backs showed their resilience.
Godfrey made a brave block of a Jon Obi Mikel shot from the edge of the box after Trybull had been beaten but the big moment came in the 77th minute, when Zimmermann heroically hooked clear off the line as Stewart Downing headed a George Friend cross beyond Krul.
Buendia had a shot deflected behind as City continued to probe for a second, without over-committing, but more defensive work was needed as Trybull got a huge slap on the back from Krul after blocking an effort from substitute Jordan Hugill at close quarters – with the keeper punching the resulting corner clear.
Six minutes of added time began, with Flint bravely blocking a Buendia volley after Hernandez had streaked clear on the right, but Godfrey was also needed to make a brilliant block at point-blank range from Mikel in the final minute of the battle.
The Canaries return to action next Saturday when they host mid-table Queens Park Rangers in a 12.30pm kick-off at Carrow Road – knowing the Premier League is moving ever closer.
NORWICH: Krul; Aarons, Zimmermann (C), Godfrey, Lewis; Trybull, McLean; Buendia, Stiepermann (Vrancic 83), Hernandez (Klose 90+4); Pukki. Unused subs: McGovern (GK), Hanley, Leitner, Cantwell, Rhodes
Booked: Stiepermann (foul on Friend, 42), Zimmermann (foul on Assombalonga, 48), Trybull (foul on Assombalonga, 57), Hernandez (excessive celebration, 54)
Goals: Hernandez (54)
BORO: Randolph; Shotton (Hugill 87), Ayala (Downing 60), Flint, Fry, Friend (C); Howson, Mikel, Clayton (Besic 72); Fletcher, Assombalonga. Unused subs: Konstantopoulos (GK), McNair, Saville, Tavernier
Booked: Ayala (handball, 33), Mikel (dissent, 49), Downing (foul on Aarons, 66)
REFEREE: David Coote (Notts)
ATTENDANCE: 23,795 (1,397 away)
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