New Norwich City faces given a piece of the action
NORWICH CITY 1, MIDDLESBROUGH 0: A quick scan of the team sheet before kick-off revealed it was not just a change of formation on show as Norwich City faced former Premier League side Middlesbrough – but a whole gallery of relatively new faces.
It is a sign of how rapidly things change in football that manager Paul Lambert’s chosen eleven for the seventh Championship home match of the campaign, before the end of October, included only four of last season’s League One title-winning squad, and only three of that quartet were regular members of the starting line-up.
As the City boss revamped his side in a bid to bounce back from the midweek home defeat by Crystal Palace, he fielded no fewer than six of his seven summer signings plus loan capture Leon Barnett, with only skipper Grant Holt, defender Russell Martin, midfielder Simon Lappin and winger Anthony McNamee surviving from the group who paraded the divisional trophy from Norwich Castle mound back in May.
True, the revolution may not have been as dramatic as it looked for Lambert said he was merely resting Wes Hoolahan and Korey Smith after the exertions of the past 14 months. And it is reasonable to assume that injured duo Michael Nelson and Adam Drury still figure large in his plans when they have shaken off their current injury problems.
But with Hoolahan, Smith and Chris Martin among those warming the bench at Carrow Road on Saturday, there was definitely a wind of change – or at least a lively breeze – blowing down the tunnel as City took the field.
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On the face of it, the switch of formation from the usual diamond midfield to a 4-4-2 shape worked well enough. McNamee’s presence on the right of the midfield four gave City additional width and it was one of his many crosses that led to the only goal, scored by Simeon Jackson two minutes before half-time, his fourth of the season.
The deployment of those two rows of four also made it mightily difficult for struggling Boro’ to do much more than spread the play across the pitch from side to side for much of the second half.
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On the one occasion they found a way through the home rearguard, in injury time, they were let down by the finishing of substitute Scott McDonald, who might have sent both sets of fans home in a very different mood had he not shovelled a poor shot wide from Nicky Bailey’s centre.
It was City’s one real escape on an afternoon when, McNamee apart, the back four took most of the honours. Elliott Ward, returning after a one-match ban, was at times imperious and with Martin, Barnett and Steven Smith all performing with distinction in defence, especially after the break, Boro’s expensively assembled attack was rendered fairly toothless.
The visitors had started tidily enough and had marginally the better of things in the opening quarter of the match.
The first worthwhile effort came after 14 minutes when a foul by Barnett on Kris Boyd gave Boro’ a free-kick on the corner of the penalty area and skipper Gary O’Neil curled in a dangerous effort that Ruddy grabbed just under the bar.
Four minutes later, hesitation on the part of Ruddy almost allowed former City loan striker Leroy Lita through and it took a solid challenge by Russell Martin to stifle the danger.
Full-back Martin then did well at the opposite end to rob O’Neil on the edge of the Boro’ area and pick out Jackson with a low centre, but the striker skied his effort over the bar.
The Canaries gradually warmed to their task and Boro’ had a lucky escape when McNamee crossed from the right and midfielder Andrew Crofts controlled well and struck a low shot that bounced back off the inside of the post into goalkeeper Jason Steele’s hands.
Then Steven Smith’s cross from the left was volleyed back across goal by Martin and Jackson flicked it just past the post with his heel.
Ward blocked a powerful drive by Lita and Bailey fired narrowly wide before Boro’ lost returning midfielder Kevin Thomson five minutes before the interval, replaced by Richard Smallwood.
But with just over a minute left to the break, City gained what proved to be a decisive lead. If there was a suspicion of offside about Jackson’s winner, referee Linington was unconcerned. McNamee was the provider with a cross from the right, the unmarked Holt doing well to turn the ball back into Jackson’s path for the simplest of finishes from close range.
There was a subdued start to the second period. David Fox had a powerful shot deflected wide and O’Neil firing a Boro’ free-kick into the wall, but it was not edge-of-the- seat entertainment.
Defenders Stephen McManus and Tony McMahon were booked for blatant fouls on Jackson and Lappin, respectively, and Chris Martin – sent on for Jackson with 20 minutes left – thumped a free-kick straight at the wall.
It was City’s last real effort on goal as Boro’ foraged away in the hope of salvaging a point.
A shot by Bailey flew out off McNamee and substitute Joe Bennett was not too far wide with a long-range effort.
But the one golden opportunity that came Middlesbrough’s way was squandered. Four minutes of stoppage time had just been signalled when Bailey’s cross from the left presented McDonald with a clear sight of goal, but the substitute failed even to force Ruddy into action as he slid his first-time shot a yard wide.