Photo Gallery: Norwich City miss the boat down by Thames
Fulham 2, Norwich City 1: The Canaries built a reputation as late goal specialists on their way to promotion last season, a trend they have continued – albeit less frequently – in the Premier League.
But they have developed a less welcome habit in more exalted company as the season progresses, by falling victim to a succession of early goals.
Fulham’s visit to Carrow Road on New Year’s Eve provided examples of both traits when Orlando Sa struck in the seventh minute and it took the Canaries until the fourth minute of stoppage time to salvage a point through Simeon Jackson.
There was no late rescue act at Craven Cottage in Saturday’s return fixture, however, when the hosts took advantage of City’s early vulnerability to strike twice in the first 13 minutes, a double blow that proved decisive.
Where Sean St Ledger, Paul Scholes and Papiss Ciss� had profited before them in recent weeks, it was Clint Dempsey and Damien Duff who did enough to lift Fulham above City and, after Swansea’s defeat yesterday, into the top half of the table.
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Substitute Aaron Wilbraham’s first goal in the top flight, 13 minutes from time, set up an uncomfortable finish for the Londoners as Paul Lambert’s men displayed greater urgency in the second half in pursuit of a point, but the damage was already done.
Perhaps it was the proximity to the Thames but City might have been stuck in Greenwich Mean Time, unaware that the clocks had gone forward since their previous match, to judge from the way they were caught cold twice in the opening stages.
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Less than two minutes had gone when debutant Ryan Bennett’s ball out of defence was returned first time by Fulham defender Brede Hangeland to Bryan Ruiz, who weaved away from Elliott Ward and Zak Whitbread to fire in a shot that goalkeeper John Ruddy parried, only for Dempsey to knock in the rebound for his 19th goal of the season.
The Canaries were dazzled by 3-D in the 13th minute when Duff extended Fulham’s lead, Mousa Dembele and Dempsey combining to put him clear of Kyle Naughton on the right, where he beat Ruddy with a left-foot shot.
City fans were taunted with chants of “We want six” but though the favoured three-man defence looked exposed at times, the threat of another thrashing never quite materialised. Indeed, the next clear chance fell at the other end, seven minutes before half-time, when Jonny Howson poked his shot left-footed across goal from Andrew Surman’s pass.
It was Ryan Bennett to the rescue, though, two minutes before the break when Dempsey struck the post and the defender did brilliantly to block Dembele’s follow-up effort.
Not for the first time, City’s new defensive shape was abandoned at half-time and Whitbread was sacrificed in the process to bring another striker, Simeon Jackson, into the action.
Fulham’s Swedish substitute Alex Kacaniklic, making his debut in place of injured Russian striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, almost made it 3-0 just after the break, escaping Russell Martin’s attentions and curling in a shot that Ruddy tipped on to the bar.
But there was more of an end-to-end look about the second half. Captain for the day, Wes Hoolahan almost reduced the arrears from Steve Morison’s knock-down by forcing Fulham ’keeper Mark Schwarzer to dive to his left to save and, as Surman followed up the rebound from a tight angle, Aaron Hughes made an important block.
Another excellent challenge by Bennett prevented Stephen Kelly adding goal number three as he moved on to a ball from Ruiz, then Hughes missed a good opportunity when he shot over from Dembele’s pass, before Ruddy saved again from full-back John Arne Riise.
But Wilbraham’s introduction for Morison midway through the half gave City a little more fluency and he was rewarded with his second goal for the club.
He missed one reasonable opportunity when he pulled his shot across goal after Surman and Naughton combined well.
But after 77 minutes, Wilbraham did reduce the arrears. A determined run by Hoolahan took the ball to the left of the Fulham area and Wilbraham cut inside on to his right foot to shoot past Schwarzer via a wicked deflection off Hughes.
With skipper Danny Murphy off injured, Fulham suddenly looked vulnerable as the Canaries sensed an unlikely point – only to find time and the tide had run away from them.