City reclaim top spot with 2-1 victory at Reading
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Four 2-1 wins on the spin, back on top of the table and with influential players returning from injury – things are looking rather good in the world of Norwich City at the moment.
Emi Buendia had given the Canaries an early lead at Reading, only for a deflected Michael Olise shot to equalise quickly for the hosts.
It was that man Teemu Pukki proving decisive again though, scoring the game-deciding penalty early in the second half after it had been won by Max Aarons, with the Finn notching his 10th goal of the season.
With the Royals beaten and Swansea also losing at Derby the victory moved the leaders seven points clear of fourth place after 19 games - and 10 clear of Middlesbrough in seventh.
Daniel Farke opted to make two changes to his team following the 2-1 win at Blackburn on Saturday, with Kenny McLean and Marco Stiepermann replacing Alex Tettey and Mario Vrancic in midfield.
The Royals made three changes, with front-line forwards Lucas Joao, Yakou Meite and George Puscas all still out injured, changing both full-backs and seeing Alfa Semedo pushed up front as talented 19-year-old Michael Olise came into their starting XI.
With 2,000 spectators inside the Madejski Stadium providing some atmosphere, the hosts were looking to continue their surprisingly strong start to life under Veljko Paunovic by moving to within a point of Norwich and preventing the visitors from reclaiming top spot from Bournemouth.
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The home fans didn’t have to wait long for a goal but it was thanks to a wayward pass from Royals midfielder Andy Rinmhota in the 11th minute– the man who had scored a brilliant injury-time equaliser in a 2-2 draw at Carrow Road in April 2019.
Teemu Pukki had just been denied by keeper Rafael after Stiepermann had stolen possession and as Reading cleared Rinomhota passed the ball across the edge of his box and there was Buendia, pouncing and slotting left-footed into the bottom-left corner for his fifth goal of the season.
It was a tentative opening half on the whole, with both teams living dangerously at times as they tried to keep possession, but within four minutes Reading were level.
The attack came down the left, with Sone Aluko’s attempted shot deflecting through the box off Josh Martin and Ovie Ejaria’s shot deflecting off Olise and looping past a wrong-footed Michael McGovern for 1-1.
City’s left side was generally looking vulnerable, with Martin looking out of sorts, but the right was offering some product and Pukki was twice denied well by Rafael.
The first was from an Aarons cross, with the Finn’s flicked shot at the near post palmed over and Martin eventually blasting over after the corner had deflected through to him.
The second was from a Stiepermann cross, with an almost identical save from Rafael followed by Hanley heading down a Buendia cross after a short corner, which the Brazilian got down to well on his line.
Olise also saw a shot deflect beyond McGovern’s right post just before the break, after cutting inside Sorensen, but the score remained 1-1 at half-time.
Farke decided changes were needed though and replaced Martin and Stiepermann with Todd Cantwell and Kieran Dowell, the former Everton midfielder featuring for the first time since needing surgery on an ankle injury back in September.
The decision paid off within 10 minutes, with Cantwell central to an attacking move which concluded with him playing a lofted pass to Aarons on the right, who darted into the box with good control and was clipped by centre-back Liam Moore as he tried to shoot.
Teemu Pukki did the rest, calmly firing low from the spot as the keeper guessed the wrong way, for his 10th Championship goal of the season.
The Royals responded by bringing on a more recognised striker, with Aluko going off and Alfa Semedo moving into midfield.
Norwich nearly wrapped up the win in the 68th minute, after nice play from Cantwell and Dowell, with Pukki crossing from the left and Dowell’s prod deflected onto the left post with the keeper beaten.
With the home supporters desperately calling for every 50-50 challenge and their team continued to probe without getting too much joy and with City clearing their lines.
Buendia went close to a second in the 74th minute, exchanging a classy one-two with Aarons but seeing his low shot deflect just wide.
More changes followed as the Royals chased a second fightback but Grant Hanley and Christoph Zimmermann stood firm against a succession of balls into the box, as rain started to fall in Berkshire.
Jordan Hugill replaced Pukki for the closing minutes as the Canaries tried to control possession and protect their lead, with Alex Tettey also coming on for Dowell with the game easing to a close.
There was one last chance though, with Olise striking a fine free-kick from 25 yards which McGovern did brilliantly to tip over his crossbar in the third minute of injury-time.
Next up for the Canaries is a home clash with Cardiff on Saturday (12.30pm), when Tim Krul and Lukas Rupp are hoping to return from injury after six games out.
READING (4-2-3-1): Rafael; Holmes, Morrison, Moore (C), Gibson; Laurent (McIntyre 81), Rinomhota (Onen 81); Semedo (Esteves 67), Olise, Ejaria; Aluko (Baldock 59). Unused subs: Walker (GK), Bristow, Watson, East, Melvin-Lambert.
Booked: Onen (foul on Cantwell, 83)
Goals: Olise (15)
NORWICH (4-2-3-1): McGovern; Aarons, Zimmermann, Hanley (C), Sorensen; Skipp, McLean; Buendia, Stiepermann (Dowell 46, Tettey 90+2), Martin (Cantwell 46); Pukki (Hugill 89). Unused subs: Barden (GK), Omobamidele, Vrancic, Omotoye
Goals: Buendia (11), Pukki (55)
REFEREE: Geoff Eltringham (Durham)