Photo Gallery: Jones denies Norwich City right at the death
Norwich City 1, Stoke City 1: The Premier League can be a cruel mistress sometimes as City found to their cost yesterday afternoon.
The Canaries looked all set to record three points upon the top-flight’s return to Carrow Road but then Kenwyne Jones headed home from close range to give Stoke a share of the spoils.
In the cold light of day, manager Paul Lambert will look upon the result as a point gained against an established Premier League side, who according to Tony Pulis will be strengthening to the tune of “three or four” new players before the end of the transfer window.
But it could have been so different.
Lambert sprung a surprise in his team selection by making six changes from the side that earned a creditable draw at Wigan last weekend.
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But, as you would expect from any City side sent out by the Scot, they set about their task with typical gusto, going toe-to-toe with the Potters.
Grant Holt was floored within the opening 10 seconds of the contest by Marc Wilson but as the City skipper got to his feet with a wry smile he knew this would be his sort of encounter.
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And he was a constant thorn in the side of centre-halves Jonathan Woodgate and Ryan Shawcross – harrying them for every ball, never giving them a moment’s piece and, more importantly, winning free-kicks in dangerous areas.
Stoke may have a team full of six-footers but City demonstrated in taking the lead that it doesn’t matter how big you are if the quality on the delivery is there.
Nice interplay between Chris Martin and the impressive Elliott Bennett saw the latter scythed down by Jonathan Woodgate close to the touchline around 35 yards from goal.
Bradley Johnson proceeded to float in a sumptuous left-footed in-swinging cross that Ritchie De Laet rose highest to meet and glance an inch-perfect header past Amir Begovic.
It wasn’t the first time that Johnson had caught the eye in the first-half. Primarily signed by Lambert to be City’s ‘Mr Nasty’ this season, he showed that his game is about a lot more than brawn – although that does come in handy when you play against Stoke.
His tidy passing and ability to switch the play caught the eye and the former Leeds man was perhaps only outshone by Anthony Pilkington in the first period.
On his home debut, you may have expected him to be a tad apprehensive about what lay ahead – not a bit of it. From the moment he turned Jermaine Pennant with ease on the halfway line early on it was apparent City have signed a player not easily overawed.
And he came very close to giving Norwich the lead in the 22nd minute when Elliott Bennett’s cross was knocked down by Holt to the lurking winger, whose right-footed effort was set for the bottom corner until Ryan Shawcross slid in to block.
But the Canaries kept on the front foot and it came as no real surprise when De Laet gave Norwich the lead. Matt Etherington had a decent effort that John Ruddy had to beat away but Norwich looked comfortable.
Then in 63rd minute came the moment that would define the match. Walters ran on to strike partner Jones’ flick-on after Leon Barnett had got on the wrong side of the former Ipswich man.
Barnett’s initial contact happened outside the area but Walters’ momentum took him inside and when the pair ended up in a heap referee Neil Swarbrick pointed to the spot. The decision to award a penalty may have been disputed but Swarbrick’s next action couldn’t be. As the last defender and preventing a clear goalscoring opportunity, Barnett had to go.
More importantly, just 12 yards and John Ruddy separated Walters and the chance to bring his side level from the spot. Fortunately, Ruddy was up to the task as he plunged himself to his left to parry away Walters’ effort.
Could City hold on for 25 minutes plus time added on? Lambert set about re-organising his side, replacing Pilkington with Daniel Ayala and it was clear Norwich were going to have to grind this out the hard way.
There were a few alarms with Holt somehow getting his body between Ryan Shawcross and the ball when the Potters skipper looked set to bundle home after Walters had flicked on at the near post.
But when the fourth official signalled an extra five minutes of added time, you knew it spelt trouble and so it proved.
City had understandably been dropping deeper and deeper to the point they were almost on top of Ruddy.
When Glenn Whelan got the ball on the edge of the area in the 93rd minute he had time to look up and clip the kind of ball in Jones had been waiting for all afternoon and the former Sunderland man didn’t disappoint. He duly rose above Ayala to head home and deny City all three points. The Canaries’ fantastic rearguard action had finally been breached.
But the belief that they belong in the Premier League is still firmly intact.