Norwich City thrown to the Lions
David Cuffley Millwall 2, Norwich City 1: The seeds of Norwich City's first defeat in 17 League One games were, just possibly, sown six weeks ago - in the middle of their record-breaking run of home victories.
The seeds of Norwich City's first defeat in 17 League One games were, just possibly, sown six weeks ago - in the middle of their record-breaking run of home victories.
Christmas brought a 2-0 win for the Canaries over Millwall and, with it, visiting boss Kenny Jackett's observation that Wes Hoolahan was “probably the outstanding player in the division”.
Star forward Hoolahan had tormented the Lions with his display of smart footwork and ducking and weaving, and he delivered a couple of knockout blows on Boxing Day by scoring the first goal and making the second for skipper Grant Holt.
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But Jackett has a good memory and his men bounced back from the canvas to win the rematch, their success due in no small part to the way they were able to stifle Hoolahan's influence on the contest with a permanent shadow in “Jimmy” Abdou - and, in truth, to the fact that they did not have Holt's heavyweight presence to deal with.
The result will not, and should not, be seen as a major setback, provided City maintain the level of performance they have produced for most of the past six months. But their lead is slender enough to be threatened if there is any kind of hangover from this defeat, played out in front of the biggest crowd of the season at The New Den - bolstered by nearly 3,000 Canary supporters, their biggest away contingent of the campaign.
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Some consolation for the travelling fans could be taken from the fact that Leeds and Charlton were held to draws on their travels. Anthony Sweeney's stoppage-time equaliser gave Hartlepool a 2-2 draw against Leeds, though the Yorkshire side still have two games in hand on Norwich. Charlton are six points behind the Canaries in third place, from the same number of games, after drawing 1-1 at Swindon.
So Paul Lambert's men, who go to Brighton next, remain in a strong position for at least a top two finish, but they have yet to lose two successive league games this season and cannot afford to slip up on the South Coast next Saturday.
They certainly had the best of starts at Millwall when Chris Martin, shouldering the main attacking responsibility in Holt's absence, gave them a fourth-minute lead with his 19th goal of the season.
Brought down by Paul Robinson a few yards outside the penalty area, Martin got up to drill the perfect free-kick low inside goalkeeper David Forde's left-hand post.
Millwall battled to get on terms and Fraser Forster saved twice from Lewis Grabban, but on the second occasion the 'keeper was adjudged to have dropped the ball behind the line and the resulting corner eventually led to the equaliser, after 25 minutes. The flag-kick was cleared but Millwall stayed on the attack and full-back Tony Craig - who was given permission to discard his Phantom of the Opera-style mask for the first time in eight games after a serious facial injury - celebrated with his first goal of the season, a powerful left-foot drive that defender Michael Nelson inadvertently diverted past Forster when the 'keeper appeared to have it covered.
Full-back Russell Martin almost restored City's lead three minutes before the break when he set off on a solo run that took him deep into Millwall territory, only to be foiled when his left-foot shot brought a fingertip save out of Forde, denying him what would have been one of the goals of the season.
Lions boss Jackett made the decisive change at half-time, however, when he replaced the largely ineffective Grabban with long-serving striker Neil Harris.
The 32-year-old made a swift impact by heading what proved to be the winner just five minutes after the break.
A corner on the left, conceded by Russell Martin, was played short to Chris Hackett and his cross into the area was met with a glancing header by the unmarked Harris, giving Forster no chance.
With City struggling to make any headway, Lambert made a double change with 25 minutes left, Anthony McNamee and Oli Johnson replacing Korey Smith and Cody McDonald.
But Hackett, who gave on-loan Michael Rose a difficult afternoon, almost made it 3-1 with a scorching drive that was just inches over the top after he intercepted Simon Lappin's risky clearance.
Liam Trotter, on loan from Ipswich and largely unimpressive, also went close when his shot took a deflection and Forster made an instinctive block.
With defender Zak Whitbread introduced to a very hostile reception against his old club, in place of Hoolahan, and centre-half Gary Doherty pushed into attack, City made one last push for a late leveller.
McNamee, of whom City fans have seen little up to now, delivered some excellent crosses from the left, but winger's efforts went unrewarded.
The last assault for an equaliser brought a long-range Darel Russell effort that was deflected into Forde's hands and a Nelson overhead kick that was diverted narrowly wide for a corner. It appeared from TV replays that Nelson's effort may have struck a defender's hand, but there appeared to be no appeal at the time and, for the first time in 16 weeks and 17 League One matches, City and their supporters tasted defeat.