Points penalty is paid on the spot for Norwich City
NORWICH CITY 1, PRESTON NORTH END 1: It depends a great deal on the outlook of the individual fan as to whether one regards Norwich City as having gained a point or lost two from their second successive home draw.
A 1-1 scoreline against the Championship’s bottom club would not normally be seen as a profitable day’s work for a team chasing promotion, especially if they have spurned a golden opportunity to secure victory from the penalty spot.
Yet those more inclined to look on the bright side of life will point out that four of the Canaries’ rivals in the leading pack all suffered defeats, two of them on home territory, so on the day there was at least the consolation of a net gain of one point on Swansea, Cardiff, Nottingham Forest and tomorrow night’s opponents, Leicester City.
In truth, though, looking gift horses in the mouth is not a good habit to get into at the business end of the season and, though Paul Lambert’s men have made truly remarkable progress to occupy fourth place with 11 games to go – just in case their efforts are not thought to have been appreciated – it was undoubtedly a missed opportunity to nudge themselves a little closer to at least a guaranteed top six place.
Wes Hoolahan’s decision to try a cheeky chip from his 72nd-minute penalty backfired badly when the ball floated like a party balloon into the hands of grateful goalkeeper Iain Turner, who had time to check and cling on to it despite initially moving the wrong way.
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Substitute Aaron Wilbraham then missed the chance to register his first goal for the club, and another dramatic late City winner, when he sliced into the side-netting during six minutes of stoppage time – an extension that could easily have been eight or nine minutes after one of the worst displays of time-wasting by a visiting team at Carrow Road since Billy Davies was in charge of the same club five years ago.
But a draw ensured that City have been beaten just twice in 21 Championship games, and without the generosity of an own goal and a squandered penalty in successive home matches, that extraordinary run would have left them second in the table this morning.
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They certainly began against Preston as if they meant business and the relegation battlers must have been delighted, and perhaps surprised to get through the opening half-hour on level terms.
As early as the fifth minute, Hoolahan was put clear on the left by Marc Tierney’s header but when he checked and picked out Surman, the midfielder’s shot was blocked by giant defender Leon Cort, who proved a formidable barrier all afternoon until he suffered a hamstring injury in the second half.
As the Canaries dominated, David Fox set up Hoolahan for a left-foot shot that whizzed just past the post, and it was some time before home ’keeper John Ruddy was troubled, diving to his right to save from David Gray.
For City, Henri Lansbury could not quite connect cleanly with Surman’s cross and Fox was just the wrong side of the post with a long-range effort, but Preston, who lost Nathan Ellington in the warm-up and Barry Nicholson before the interval, gradually took the sting out of their hosts’ assault.
City had to make a change 10 minutes after the break when defender Zak Whitbread, who had soldiered on briefly after landing badly on his back, made way for loan centre-half Rob Edwards, making his debut.
Edwards and Elliott Ward were still getting to know each other when Preston stunned the home crowd by going ahead.
Chris Brown, replacing another ex-Canary striker in Paul Hayes, made an instant impact, winning a free-kick and scoring from it within a minute of coming off the bench. Brown was fortunate to get the benefit of the decision after a clash with Ward, who suffered a bloody nose and appeared to come off worse, but he quickly took advantage. Keith Treacy thumped the free-kick into the wall but as the ball rebounded, he floated it back into the area and Brown eluded Edwards before controlling at the far post and volleying in.
There were brief appeals for offside – or that Brown had used his upper arm – but City were level inside three minutes when skipper Grant Holt scored his 16th goal of the season.
Surman played a one-two with Fox and although Surman’s shot was well saved by Turner, Holt sidefooted home from the rebound.
Referee Craig Pawson struggled to keep a lid on the simmering tension as a late challenge by Billy Jones on Russell Martin sparked angry scenes and then Holt was booked when he went down in the Preston area under challenge from substitute Bailey Wright.
Iain Hume, meanwhile, had given City a jolt when he struck the bar with a teasing cross.
But the penalty City wanted, and the chance of three points, duly came along when Darren Carter blocked Martin’s cross-shot with his raised arm. There was an air of disbelief as Hoolahan, one of City’s best performers once again, chose the slow-motion option from the spot and gave Turner enough time to readjust and make the save.
Turner made another important stop from Hoolahan moments later as he tried to atone for his poor penalty, and there were chances at both ends to settle the contest in the closing stages.
Sean St Ledger almost restored Preston’s lead from a corner by Hume when his close-range effort was blocked by Ward before Ruddy grabbed hold of the ball, then City’s substitutes both had openings, Simeon Jackson having a header saved from Hoolahan’s cross, and Wilbraham missing the last opportunity when he fired into the side-netting from close range.