Swansea more than a match for Norwich City
SWANSEA CITY 3, NORWICH CITY 0: One of the virtues of Norwich City’s remarkable progress under manager Paul Lambert has been the way they have concentrated on crossing each bridge as they come to it.
And there are plenty of bridges to enjoy in the Championship, as regular travelling supporters will know – the Dartford Bridge en route to Crystal Palace, the Humber Bridge on the way to Hull, and the spectacular Clifton Bridge, visible just over a mile from Bristol City’s Ashton Gate ground.
Alas, the Second Severn Crossing, to give it its full title, has not been the gateway to a land of plenty for the Yellow Army this season after two very long, fruitless trips to South Wales – though the team, in direct contrast to their style of play, took the aerial route this time, perhaps to avoid paying the steep toll fees.
The 3-1 defeat at Cardiff at the end of October and Saturday’s 3-0 reverse at the hands of Swansea City, rare setbacks away from home, could ultimately have a big say in the race for automatic promotion – the two games acting as bookends for a tremendous 25-match sequence in which City were beaten only twice.
The Canaries went to the Liberty Stadium knowing that victory would give them a seven-point advantage over their opponents, but left with their grip on second place in the Championship cut to a single point with six matches to go, the two Welsh clubs breathing down their necks after Cardiff also enjoyed a successful day with a 3-1 victory at Doncaster.
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In fairness, there have been very few times when City have failed to rise to the occasion this season. The bigger the game, the bigger the response, but after squandering an early chance to strike the first blow in the day’s televised late kick-off at Swansea, they were on the back foot for most of the first period, and trailed at the interval to stunning goals from Fabio Borini and Mark Gower.
Substitute Tamas Priskin, on loan from Ipswich – just to rub salt in the wounds – completed the scoring in the fourth minute of stoppage time with a goal that Lambert described as “irrelevant” – certainly true in the context of the game but just possibly of some significance if the promotion race becomes so tight that it boils down to goal difference.
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Without the injured Wes Hoolahan and with Simeon Jackson, fresh from his hat-trick against Scunthorpe, left on the bench, City nevertheless began brightly and should have taken the lead in the fourth minute.
Marc Tierney found Dani Pacheco inside the Swansea area but the Spaniard’s shot was beaten away by goalkeeper Dorus De Vries and, although the rebound fell invitingly for skipper Grant Holt, the ’keeper grabbed his follow-up effort.
City were made to pay for that miss in the fifth minute when Borini gave Swansea the lead.
Zak Whitbread fouled the on-loan Italian just outside the penalty area and Borini stepped up to score with a magnificent free-kick, over the wall and out of reach of goalkeeper John Ruddy – a trick he learned from Didier Drogba at his parent club, Chelsea.
Three times Holt attempted to level the scores, De Vries diving to his right to save the first effort before the Canaries’ top scorer swung another shot wide and then headed into the side netting from Russell Martin’s cross.
But he and his colleagues were given a Welsh mountain to climb in the 29th minute when Gower scored the second.
Borini picked out full-back Angel Rangel, whose powerful shot Ruddy managed to parry, but as Whitbread and Andrew Surman both miscued with attempted clearances, Gower rasped in the loose ball from just outside the penalty area.
Swansea almost finished off City before the break as Tierney made a vital block on Nathan Dyer, then Ruddy saved at point-blank range from Borini after Dyer put him through.
With Jackson added to their attacking armoury at the interval, City should have reduced the arrears within a minute as Holt planted a free header wide from Pacheco’s free-kick, a miss that rather summed up his day.
Andrew Crofts had a diving header blocked and struck a half-volley that whizzed wide and, after a double change by Lambert, substitute Korey Smith was unlucky not to open his account for the season when, set up by Holt in the 72nd minute, he was denied by a splendid double save by De Vries, who not only kept out his powerful first shot but blocked the midfielder’s swift follow-up.
City’s pursuit of a point left them exposed at times and Priskin, proving a handful, tested Ruddy – and the patience of his opponents – more than once, before Rangel almost scored the third with a drive that fizzed wide.
Tempers became a little frayed as time began to run out for City, but it was the Town loanee who had the last word.
Seconds from the end of stoppage time, Whitbread’s backpass fell short of Ruddy and as the ’keeper slid out to try to clear, he failed to connect, leaving the substitute to knock the loose ball into an empty net.
Swansea and their second biggest crowd of the season celebrated almost as if they had already won promotion, though manager Brendan Rodgers was commendably level-headed about their chances, and more than one national newspaper scribe sharpened his pencil to start writing off the Canaries, still – one hopes – a rather dangerous tactic.