Norwich City 1, Charlton Athletic 1
CHRIS LAKEY There must be something about spending Boxing Day with the Norwich City family that the Sodje family don’t like. Exactly 12 months to the day after Efe Sodje was sent off while playing for Southend, younger brother Sam saw red for Charlton.
There must be something about spending Boxing Day with the Norwich City family that the Sodje family don't like. Exactly 12 months to the day after Efe Sodje was sent off while playing for Southend, younger brother Sam saw red for Charlton.
When Efe went it was a blessed relief for his team-mates - he's had a nightmare 55 minutes and when he scythed down Dickson Etuhu he couldn't get down the escape tunnel quickly enough.
Sam - who had scored for West Brom on his last visit to Norwich, in April - was equally speedy today, but only because he had accepted the inevitable and headed towards the showers before referee Mick Russell had even had time to show him a straight red for a two-footed lunge on Darel Russell. Perhaps they just form the front and back end of the panto horse this season.
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The difference between the two dismissals is that today's had an effect on the game. Against Southend, City were just plain rotten before and after comic genius Efe went off, it made no difference at all. But when Sam went, Charlton dug in and turned what had all the promise of a terrific little Christmas upset by Norwich upside down. Having taken the lead just nine minutes earlier, against the run of play, Charlton had tried to get back into the game, but a resilient City refused to be pushed about.
But with only 10 men, Charlton's mind-set had to change, and it did. Chris Iwelumo was left to his own devices up front and goal scorer Zheng Zhi slipped back to a four-man midfield. It was a conventional double bank of four that City had to face and the invitation to Norwich was clear: come and see if you can break us down. Charlton, after all, didn't need another goal as long as they kept City at bay and the only thing that had changed after their reshuffle was, effectively, their attack.
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It was a change that was working perfectly, but there is only so much a defence can take before it begins to creak, and when Russell got his head to Darren Huckerby's corner on 73 minutes, City finally broke through and got the goal that their efforts deserved.
Against a team still flush with Premiership cash after relegation last season and with a squad that would be the envy of many of their rivals, it would normally be regarded as a good point for the Canaries. Well, it would have been a couple of months ago. But what Glenn Roeder served up this Boxing Day was very different from the fare that we had before us a year ago and there was no escaping the fact that almost everyone around Carrow Road today saw it as two points dropped.
For those fans brave enough to recall the pre-Roeder days, the Christmas programme had brought on a few nervous twitches: no one much fancied Charlton and Wolves at home, sandwiched by Scunthorpe and Crystal Palace away. But, having seen off Sheffield United - also relegated last season - in their last home game, City must fancy their chances of escaping the festive season relatively unharmed. Four points from a possible six are already in the bag. Roeder might not admit it, but you reckon he'd take the same from the next two - there's an awful lot of kudos to be taken from going half a dozen matches unbeaten, and if City head to Palace with that stat tucked under their belts, they will feel an awful lot better for it.
The fact that City dropped two places to 20th was unfortunate and Roeder will be only too aware that good possession must be turned into goals.
City should have been on the scoreboard well before Charlton went ahead - Russell shot straight at keeper Nicky Weaver, who was soon grateful to see a Jamie Cureton land in his hands, while Darren Huckerby curled one just wide of the far angle. Weaver then dived to his right to save brilliantly from Jason Shackell's header. And that was all in the first quarter of an hour.
But out of the blue - or the red in this case - Charlton scored. Huckerby lost possession as he tried to clip the ball past Madjid Bougherra down the left flank. The excellent Jose Semedo took possession, knocked it forward to China international Zheng, who left Gary Doherty on his backside before firing in a shot that David Marshall should probably have saved.
To their credit, City didn't suffer a sudden lack of confidence - and there's another difference between now and a year ago - and a superb dipping shot from Cureton was only inches away from levelling matters.
And then came Sodje's moment of madness: Russell had done well to stretch and win possession, and when he looked like doing it again, 25 yards from the visitors' goal, Sodje took the law into his own hands and leapt in with both feet. As both sets of players prepared to swing their handbags, Sodje simply walked away, not even seeing the red card that was being shown.
Charlton changed it around, Bougherra joining Paddy McCarthy in the middle, Semedo moving to right back - and then prepared to play rope-a-dope with City.
Mo Camara, who had one his best games in a City shirt, forced Weaver into a diving save from a free-kick while Russell was inches wide with a 25-yard effort - but the vital first-half equaliser didn't come.
Charlton sent on Izale McLeod for Iwelumo at half-time, although the one-time City target's afternoon ended embarrassingly prematurely when he himself was subbed with eight minutes of normal time remaining.
When Huckerby prodded a corner goalwards on 50 minutes and there was no-one there to knock it over the line, you felt maybe it wouldn't be City's day: they had almost exclusive rights to the football, but it was a long time between worthwhile efforts on goal.
In the meantime, Charlton had started to employ the tactic we all hate - if it's not our team doing it: time wasting. McLeod was guilty when he refused to return the ball to a City player, while every Charlton free-kick was worked on a logarithm table before they took it. Alan Pardew's unpopularity among Norwich fans lies somewhere behind that of a) any Ipswich manager past or present and b) Neil Warnock - a fact City fans were quick to remind him of as their frustrations mounted.
Matty Pattison had swung over a succession of perfect corners - eight to be precise - and apart from Shackell's first-half header, none had been met with similar quality in the box.
So when Huckerby was given the job as City got a corner on the left on 72 minutes nothing much was expected of it. Cue Russell.
The City captain had been perpetual motion all afternoon with a performance that simply screamed for a goal to top it off: and that's what he came up with, getting in front of the Charlton defenders to glance a header back towards goal that Chris Powell could only hoof into the roof of the net. It was Russell's first league goal since returning to City in the summer, but few this season have been so fitting.
The perfect ending, of course, would have been a second goal. By anyone. It could have been Huckerby, but he shot wide, while Ched Evans was denied by Weaver and Powell nicked the rebound off the foot of Lee Croft with the goal gaping.
The finale was breathtaking, despite Charlton's often illegal efforts to slow it all down, although how the officials came up with only three minutes of time added on when most people were settling in for a late one is anyone's guess.