Norwich City rise to the challenge – again

DERBY COUNTY 1, NORWICH CITY 2: Midfielder David Fox had spoken ahead of Norwich City’s trip to Pride Park of the prospect of facing one of his best friends in football, Derby defender Shaun Barker.

The two played together at Blackpool and, Fox admitted, had been in touch to discuss the severe weather in the days leading up to Saturday’s meeting between two of the Championship front-runners.

But once the game was given the go-ahead, he could not have hoped for such a valuable assist from his old team-mate as that provided by Barker little more than 10 minutes into the contest.

A typically smooth passing move by the Canaries led to Fox letting fly with a low drive that was heading a yard or two wide before Barker inadvertently diverted it goalwards with the inside of his right foot and through the diving frame of surprised goalkeeper Frank Fielding. For Barker, also a former colleague of City pair Wes Hoolahan and, briefly, Grant Holt, at Bloomfield Road, it was a moment of cruel misfortune but for Fox – who was initially credited with his second goal for the club – it was another highlight in a season in which he is beginning to play a significant part for his new club.

His assured performance at the base of the revamped City midfield diamond was one of the key factors in a notable away victory against the team with the best average crowds in the division, and one looking to extend a run of six successive home wins.

It was the Canaries’ fourth away win of the season and the most impressive yet in terms of the standard of the opposition and the added pressure that comes with a top six battle.

But, as at Reading and Millwall, the bigger the test, the more Paul Lambert’s team seem to relish it and the manager – watching from the stand as he completed a two-match ban – must have been mightily pleased with his players’ ability to combine a slick passing game with a steely determination to win.

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They had already threatened to take the lead twice before Barker’s mishap. In the seventh minute, Henri Lansbury, playing in a role behind the two strikers, met Simon Lappin’s cross with a header that Fielding parried, Barker clearing off the line before Chris Martin could follow up.

Defender Leon Barnett then headed over from Holt’s cross, but in the 11th minute Lansbury, Chris Martin, Hoolahan and Crofts combined to set up Fox for what proved to be the opening goal.

It was an equally sweet move that made it 2-0 two minutes later when another perfect Lappin centre from the left was met by the unmarked Chris Martin, who planted a firm header perfectly inside Fielding’s right-hand post.

The Rams gave themselves a route back into the game in the 17th minute when Elliott Ward misjudged Gareth Roberts’ through-ball and a flick from Luke Moore put the ever-dangerous Scotland international Kris Commons through to beat ’keeper John Ruddy with a cool finish for his 11th goal of the season.

As against Reading and Ipswich, City had conceded soon after scoring, and they were almost caught again midway through the half when it took a fine save from Ruddy to preserve their lead. A poor crossfield ball from Chris Martin was intercepted by Commons and Paul Green looked favourite in a one-on-one, but Ruddy clawed his shot away right-handed.

City had to be grateful that Green’s finishing was not as impressive as his ability to get into goalscoring positions. He almost provided the equaliser 10 minutes before the interval when he gathered another Commons’ pass and turned inside Ward before curling a right-foot shot just off target.

Commons, back from a bout of illness, was the star player on show for the hosts and his free-kick nearly provided the equaliser after the break but Barker headed over the top.

City might have put more daylight between themselves and the Rams soon afterwards, courtesy of a mistake by Roberts. His dreadful pass across his own penalty area was intercepted by Chris Martin, but as the striker tried to create room for a shot he was blocked off by Dean Leacock. Referee Stroud waved away his appeals for a penalty, however.

Full-back John Brayford pushed forward to good effect and twice tried his luck from long range but it was Green who missed another golden opportunity when Moore flicked a cross from Commons into his path at the far post, but he was thwarted by a combination of the woodwork and goalkeeper Ruddy.

Commons was the man most likely to rescue the Rams and there were appeals for a penalty when he went flying after a challenge by Ward, though referee Stroud was unimpressed and he was probably right – one TV angle appeared to show Ward sweeping the ball away with his toe as Commons went into a somersault.

As City swept into attack, Chris Martin might have made the game safe when he moved on to Hoolahan’s pass but Fielding dived to block his low shot.

Holt was also close to making it 3-1 when he juggled Russell Martin’s free-kick and volleyed just over the top.

But the best chance of the half fell to Commons with seven minutes to go when he worked his way deep into Norwich territory but then pulled his shot wide.

Four minutes of stoppage time brought no real scares for City but two incidents of note – one rarity and one not so unusual occurrence.

Sadly, Holt picked up a costly booking for holding up play – his fifth yellow card of the season earning him a one-match ban for the visit of Portsmouth.

Then, in the third minute of time added on, Owain Tudur Jones made his first senior appearance for City for more than a year when he replaced Lansbury, just in time to share the victory celebrations with more than 2,200 travelling fans.