Norwich City cope well with a spot of bother
QPR 0, NORWICH CITY 0: Wes Hoolahan and Kaspars Gorkss were team-mates when Blackpool took the first big step on the road to joining the elite of the English game.
Now the Irish forward and the Latvian centre-back, who together helped the Seasiders gain Championship status three years before their elevation to Premier League status last May, are busily trying to help their current clubs into the same distinguished company.
And as leaders Queens Park Rangers and third-placed Norwich City met at Loftus Road, the two former colleagues had the best opportunities to secure all three points from a hard-fought encounter.
Hoolahan, who had scored from the spot for the Canaries in the previous two matches, passed up the chance of a hat-trick when he rolled his 28th-minute penalty past the post after Rangers full-back Clint Hill had wrestled skipper Grant Holt to the ground.
Gorkss was at least on target with his effort when he got his bandaged head to the ball from a Tommy Smith free-kick 10 minutes from time, but was denied by the intervention of City midfielder Andrew Crofts, heading off the line.
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Hoolahan’s miss ended the Canaries’ run of scoring in 32 consecutive away league games, stretching back to March 2009, while maintaining Rangers’ record of not conceding a goal at home in the Championship this season.
A draw was certainly a fair result from a game that ebbed and flowed and kept a near full house nicely on edge without ever quite justifying Rangers boss Neil Warnock’s description as “fabulous” entertainment.
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Most of City’s 3,000-plus travelling fans – among them new director Stephen Fry – would have settled for a point before kick-off, but must have been disappointed to see the chance to claim two more slip away, and the afternoon was costly in other ways with defender Elliott Ward picking up his fifth booking of the season and a one-match ban, and full-back Adam Drury hobbling off injured after less than an hour.
Nevertheless, both managers went home well satisfied with their teams retaining their morning positions in the table.
Clear-cut chances were at a premium but Holt carved out the first of them in the ninth minute when he wriggled free of the hesitant Gorkss and brushed off Matthew Connolly before testing goalkeeper Paddy Kenny with a snap-shot that the ’keeper managed to claw away.
Moroccan midfielder Adel Taarabt was Rangers’ most creative player and after Gorkss had a shot deflected narrowly wide from his corner, he struck a swerving effort that goalkeeper John Ruddy clutched gratefully to his chest.
With the hosts still a shade disorganised after Gorkss needed attention for a cut and Akos Buzsaky limped out of the contest, City had their one big chance to move in front.
Simeon Jackson’s shot was blocked but Drury found Hoolahan, whose cross was destined for Holt’s head before he was grappled to the floor by Hill.
Referee Penn, appropriately named, pointed straight to the spot but Hoolahan, in trying to put the kick to Kenny’s left, instead put it wide.
The home side and their supporters took heart from their lucky escape and Holt was back in his own penalty area to block a close-range effort from Heidar Helguson to keep the scoresheet blank at the interval.
Rangers stepped up the pressure after the break and Drury, coping admirably with a difficult job against the twin threat of Taarabt and on-loan full-back Kyle Walker, was forced to depart after pulling up with a calf injury.
New Scotland cap Jamie Mackie, looking out of sorts after his international stint, did his opponents a favour by diverting a powerful goalbound effort from Walker over the bar, and City survived penalty appeals when it appeared substitute Steven Smith may have pushed Hogan Ephraim over in the area.
Helguson might have broken the deadlock when he for once escaped the attentions of the impressive Ward and Leon Barnett but then headed over from Connolly’s long ball.
At the other end, Holt missed City’s best second-half opportunity 15 minutes from time when Korey Smith and Jackson combined well to put him through on the left side of the penalty area, but, from a difficult angle, he sliced his effort into the crowd.
Five minutes later, Crofts performed goalline heroics when substitute Tommy Smith’s free-kick was nodded back to Gorkss, whose header had ‘goal’ written all over it until the midfielder popped up to nod it clear.
In stoppage time, Rangers’ last chance went begging as Ruddy dived to his left to save from Tommy Smith.
Trips to Loftus Road invariably seems to carry special significance for the Canaries and what the venue lacks in grandeur, it usually makes up for in atmosphere.
City’s travelling army, many of them arriving very close to kick-off after traffic delays, contributed greatly to the occasion but Lambert was careful not to make them any promises about his side’s chances of staying among the front runners.
“I never know what’s going to happen tomorrow let alone what’s going to happen much down the line, so I don’t know,” said the City boss. “I take one game at a time, I always have done, I never look to the future.
“But the players have a terrific belief, they have a great desire not to get beaten, and you can’t underestimate people having a hunger for the game.”