Photo Gallery: Hoops, they did it again for Norwich City
Norwich City 2, QPR 1: It would probably be frowned on to talk in terms of six-pointers at this stage of the season, but if Norwich City retain Premier League status next May, or even sooner, they may have cause to look back on their home victory over Queens Park Rangers as one of the most important.
On their return to the big time, the Canaries have developed a happy knack of winning or drawing against the teams they most need to take points off, with only the home defeat by West Bromwich Albion and the draw at Liverpool departing from a pattern of results, which, if not exactly predictable, might have been forecast in August by a fan of optimistic outlook.
Beating fellow promoted teams Swansea and QPR on home territory falls into that pattern and those two results are a major reason why Paul Lambert’s men go into December in the top half of the table, ahead of the two sides who accompanied them into the top flight.
Saturday’s win over Neil Warnock’s team was not quite the classic encounter that the top-of-the-table Championship fixture produced on New Year’s Day, but it was fitting that three players who have been a key part of City’s remarkable transformation all the way from League One to their current heady heights all played major roles in the victory.
Russell Martin marked the second anniversary of his arrival at Carrow Road by repeating his party trick – scoring early on against Rangers – while double player of the year winner Grant Holt and Wes Hoolahan stepped from the wings like the wizard and his apprentice to enliven the show and the audience when both were flagging a little, by conjuring up the winning goal.
It was a victory that City, showing three changes from the 2-1 home defeat by Arsenal, looked well on course for in the opening half-hour, but it might have been snatched away from them but for the appearance of the popular double act.
Simeon Jackson, getting his first Premier League start, had already tested partially fit Rangers goalkeeper Radek Cerny with a volley from 20 yards when, in the 10th minute, Steve Morison – the man currently keeping Holt on the bench – almost produced a repeat of his goal against the Gunners. He showed great strength to rob Anton Ferdinand, only for Cerny to smother his shot.
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The first goal was not long in coming, however. Andrew Crofts, rediscovering his shooting boots, forced two corners in quick succession. From the second, taken by the recalled Andrew Surman, Ferdinand made a hash of attempting to clear and Martin swivelled to shoot home from six yards.
There was a moment of alarm when Rangers’ Shaun Wright-Phillips went tumbling over goalkeeper John Ruddy’s challenge after a flick from Heidar Helguson, but referee Clattenburg was unimpressed, and Morison almost made it 2-0 when Surman teed him up for a curling shot from 20 yards that just cleared the bar. Wright-Phillips threatened twice on the stroke of half-time, first with a free-kick that drifted right across the six-yard box, with Shaun Derry unable to get a touch at the far post, then when he set off on a determined run and his shot was spilled by Ruddy, but Jamie Mackie, following up, hit the side netting from a tight angle.
Rangers showed more urgency after the break and, in the 59th minute, Luke Young put them level with his second goal in successive games.
Cerny’s long kick was knocked on and Leon Barnett’s clearance went only as far as Mackie, who drilled in a low shot that rebounded off the inside of the post, leaving Young to coolly tuck away the rebound.
An uncomfortable few minutes followed but the introduction of Hoolahan and Holt for Anthony Pilkington and Jackson, with 20 minutes left, turned the tide.
Holt had been on the field just three minutes when he restored City’s lead.
First Holt combined with Surman to find Morison, who battled away before floating a cross to the far post, where Holt’s header was blocked on the line by Derry. But still the ball was not cleared and when Crofts found Hoolahan on the right side of the area, his cross into the six-yard box was knocked in by Holt for his fourth goal of the season.
With City reinvigorated, Surman headed over from a cross from Holt, and Morison glanced a header over the top from Hoolahan’s centre.
Kyle Naughton, on as a substitute after the recalled Ritchie de Laet aggravated a back problem, snuffed out Rangers’ last real chance when he jumped well to deny Helguson a clear header at the far post.