Photo Gallery: Norwich City head for the FA Cup exit once again
Norwich City 1, Leicester City 2: One of the features of Norwich City’s remarkable Premier League progress – and almost certainly one of the reasons for it – has been the way manager Paul Lambert has juggled his players from game to game without stemming a steady accumulation of points.
It has been difficult to pinpoint what might be described as the Canaries’ strongest eleven and there have been few, if any, automatic choices.
However, it is a fair bet the one player Championship side Leicester City most feared facing in Saturday’s FA Cup fifth round tie at Carrow Road was Grant Holt, fresh from a matchwinning double at Swansea and having scored in the previous two rounds of the competition.
The Canaries’ skipper and top scorer was instead rested, along with defender Kyle Naughton, ahead of next Sunday’s Premier League visit of reigning champions Manchester United, while goalkeeper John Ruddy and midfielder Andrew Surman were given an afternoon on the substitutes’ bench.
Survival in the top flight is, quite rightly, Lambert’s priority but with probably only two victories needed from the final 13 games to dispel any lingering fear of relegation – and the United game arguably unlikely to provide one of them – the hot topic of debate on Saturday night was whether the chance of a first FA Cup quarter-final appearance for 20 years had been more lightly discarded than necessary.
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Certainly it was in no sense a weak side that took on Leicester, but few would dispute that City look a stronger outfit with their inspirational captain leading the line, so in that sense neither was it the strongest available.
The Canaries’ last three cup exits, at the hands of Leyton Orient, MK Dons and now Leicester, have all come on home territory against lower division opponents – and Holt has not started any of those games.
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But the selection debate is now academic and, purely from what transpired over 90 minutes, one could not really begrudge Leicester a fifth successive FA Cup success over Norwich, and their third at Carrow Road.
Their expensively-assembled team, sprinkled with Premier League experience, for once played with a cohesion and conviction that made their mid-table Championship position more difficult to fathom. In truth, it was not a typical “shock” victory over higher-ranked opponents.
On another day, the Canaries might have scrambled at least a replay from their labours, but there were just too many misplaced passes and below-par performances to warrant a place in yesterday’s draw.
Holt’s replacement, Steve Morison, gave notice of an unhappy afternoon to come when he lifted a reasonable chance over the bar after little more than a minute’s play.
Leicester responded with a flurry of four corners, the last of which produced the opening goal as Sean St Ledger managed to get the back of his head in the way of Ben Marshall’s inswinging kick and direct the ball beyond ’keeper Jed Steer, making his home debut.
Simeon Jackson glanced a header wide from David Fox’s corner, and Jackson was involved again as the Canaries were handed a way back into the game midway through the first half by a rash challenge by Leicester ‘keeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Jackson’s shot looped into the air and Schmeichel barged Elliott Bennett to the ground as they competed for the dropping ball. Schmeichel made a fine one-handed save from Wes Hoolahan’s penalty, only for Hoolahan to knock in the rebound – but only just inside the post.
The absence of goalline technology may have worked in Norwich’s favour on the half-hour when another Marshall corner posed problems and Wes Morgan’s deft backheel was chested away by Elliott Ward, though the defender had both feet well behind the line and it was a tight decision.
Defender Leon Barnett, starting a match for the first time since December 3, provided more of a goal threat than most of the forwards, and almost gave Norwich the lead eight minutes after the break when, following a corner from Fox, he stabbed a shot goalwards only for Leicester skipper Richie Wellens to clear off the line.
James Vaughan’s first appearance for five months and Aaron Wilbraham’s third FA Cup outing of the season were designed to enliven the Canaries’ flagging attack, but the goal Leicester had begun to threaten arrived with just under 20 minutes to go.
Jermaine Beckford, looking livelier in the second half, supplied the flick and Nugent weaved past Barnett before tucking his shot past Steer.
Hoolahan might have scored his second three minutes later when he went on a twisting run and curled his shot just the wrong side of the post. Beckford then struck the woodwork in a swift counter-attack before the Canaries’ last desperate attempts to force a replay, Russell Martin having a header blocked from Bennett’s corner and Schmeichel saving from the determined Wilbraham, with substitute Paul Konchesky doing just enough to stop Vaughan snapping up the rebound.
Leicester fans, taunting their hosts over their lower-than-expected ticket allocation, more than made up for the missing 1,600 when the final whistle sounded, while City’s biggest FA Cup crowd for nearly three decades trudged home to reflect on a missed opportunity.