Somma arrives too soon for Norwich City
LEEDS UNITED 2, NORWICH CITY 2: The Valentine’s Fair loomed large on the bleak winter skyline – but more than 30,000 fans making their way to Elland Road knew where to go for the real thrills and spills.
Who needs gallopers when you can watch Robert Snodgrass and Max Gradel marauding up and down the flanks? When it comes to dodgems, is anyone more adept at weaving in and out of a jam than Wes Hoolahan? And where would you find a better rollercoaster ride than this classic battle between two of the best sides in the Championship?
Leeds United against Norwich City may not have been billed as the division’s match of the day – positions in the table gave the clash between Nottingham Forest and Cardiff priority on the TV highlights. But it’s hard to believe those at the City Ground had better entertainment than this.
Indeed, supporters of both clubs had every reason to be grateful to the staff who cleared heavy snow from the pitch after parts of West Yorkshire were briefly transformed into a winter wonderland on Saturday morning.
They certainly had their money’s worth as, for the second time this season, it was impossible to separate the two sides who came up from League One together nine months ago and have made such a big impact on their return to more elevated surroundings.
Leeds will feel that they could and perhaps should have wrapped up the points by half-time, when the Canaries were pegged in their own half as much as in any match this season.
But City, too, must have sensed a notable victory was on the cards when their polished football gave them a 2-1 lead and left the hosts chasing shadows for a while after the restart.
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In the end, another score-draw was a fair result – even if it took a wonderful save from goalkeeper John Ruddy to deny substitute Billy Paynter an injury-time winner for Leeds.
The Canaries were deprived of the services of three senior players on duty the previous weekend – Leon Barnett, Chris Martin and Simon Lappin – and were soon under pressure, to the extent that they could have been two goals down inside five minutes.
Leeds skipper Jonathan Howson missed the first opening when he moved on to Neil Kilkenny’s header but rolled his shot just past the post.
There was another escape when Luciano Becchio met Robert Snodgrass’s free-kick with a firm header that struck the post and rebounded into the grateful Ruddy’s arms.
City had still not mustered a serious attempt on goal when Leeds went ahead in the 17th minute with Becchio’s 15th goal of the season.
Max Gradel’s cross was headed on by Snodgrass and the Argentine striker, at the far post, threw his weight at Adam Drury and the ball, which appeared to go in off his shoulder.
Russell Martin later had to halt Gradel’s progress with a timely challenge when he burst through, but home ’keeper Kasper Schmeichel was finally forced into action 10 minutes before the break when he leapt to his left to keep out a 25-yard drive from David Fox.
Howson was wasteful again when he had two stabs at a cross from Eric Lichaj, the first thudding against Russell Martin, the second against the crossbar.
But just as it seemed City would be grateful to go into the break only one goal down, they equalised in first-half stoppage time with a splendid finish by Henri Lansbury, his third goal in four matches.
Andrew Crofts’ centre to the far post was nodded back by skipper Grant Holt and Lansbury drilled a low shot past Schmeichel, before indulging in the most singular of goal celebrations.
After the break, City were a different proposition. Hoolahan almost caught out Schmeichel with a stinging shot that the ’keeper fumbled wide, and though Howson, Becchio and Gradel all asked questions of Ruddy and his back four, it was City who gained the upper hand.
First they went close when Aaron Wilbraham helped on Russell Martin’s free-kick and Holt flicked an effort against the post with Schmeichel beaten.
But they went one better on 68 minutes when Hoolahan scored his ninth goal of the season.
Elliott Ward produced a neat turn to find Crofts, who in turn picked out Hoolahan in space on the right side of the penalty area, and the Irishman threaded his shot past Schmeichel, with full-back Lichaj able only to help it into the net.
With the home crowd increasingly worried and agitated, Leeds looked to the bench for inspiration and it paid dividends immediately.
Davide Somma replaced Kilkenny and the South African substitute scored with his first touch. A cross from the left by Alex Bruce was met with a looping header by Becchio, the ball dropping perfectly for Somma to beat Ruddy with a well-struck volley.
Thereafter, Leeds looked more likely winners and it took two moments of heroic defending from the Canaries to keep them out.
Ten minutes from time, Zak Whitbread, who put in a great performance in place of the injured Barnett, made a marvellous saving header at the far post from Bradley Johnson’s cross to deny Somma what looked like being his second goal in the space of five minutes.
And, finally, with three minutes of stoppage time played, it was Ruddy who saved the day. Substitute Paynter played a one-two with Somma and looked certain to score, but the ’keeper did brilliantly to turn Paynter’s shot past the post and spare City a repeat of last season’s injury-time agony at Elland Road.
For Paul Lambert’s side, it was one of the biggest tests of the season so far, but the way they coped puts them in great heart for two more battles with Yorkshire opponents, depleted Doncaster on Tuesday night and Mark Robins’ Barnsley next Saturday.