Monday, March 19, 2012

Hairy Bikers 1 - 0 Delia Smith

Newcastle Utd 1 - 0 Norwich City

A far-from-assured 1-0 home win over newly promoted opposition? We've been here before, when QPR visited back in mid-January, and now - as then - the three points are very welcome even if the performance is deserving of a critical post-mortem. For, while we created the best chances, we also ceded possession too cheaply to a confident, fluent side who generally looked more composed and purposeful on the ball and who gradually grew (or, more accurately, were allowed to grow) into the game.

Injury robbed the Silver Fox of the services of both Mr T and Obertan Kenobi, heralding a major reshuffle of the side that lost agonisingly late against Arsenal. Perchinho and Danny Guthrie came into midfield, Spidermag was surprisingly asked to drop into defence with Davide Santon consigned to the bench, and Papiss Cisse was restored to the starting XI as we reverted to a more attack-minded 4-4-2 formation.

It was the inclusion of Cisse that was to prove the most significant. He'd already sprung the offside trap once, wasting the opportunity by lobbing tamely at a comfortable height for Norwich 'keeper John Ruddy, when he handed us an 11th-minute advantage. Spidermag, pushed up into more familiar territory on the left wing, delivered a bouncing cross which the Senegalese striker, darting in front of his marker, steered sublimely into the top corner with the outside of his foot. We wanted a finisher and, on that evidence, it certainly looks as though we've got one. As Norwich's most famous son Alan Partridge might have exclaimed, "Shit! He's got a foot like a traction engine!"

The Canaries could have hit back immediately, Jonny Howson firing a screamer over Tim Krul's crossbar after HBA and Mike Williamson had once again been guilty of overplaying in dangerous areas, but it was Ruddy who remained the busier of the two 'keepers. First, when Demba Ba got a toe to Dreamboat's whipped cross, he fingertipped the ball agonisingly wide, and then, when Cisse was released by an exquisite through-ball from Spidermag, he advanced quickly and far enough to block away the shot.

Guthrie was left appealing for a penalty when the ball struck an arm (I've seen them given etc etc), and we were also cursing the officials' inaction for allowing the visitors their best chance of the half. Spidermag might have gone to ground too easily under pressure from Elliott Bennett, but Danny Simpson was incontrovertibly clobbered by his marker when the cross came in. Incredibly no offence was deemed to have taken place, and Andrew Surman was given license to shoot weakly across the face of goal and behind.

Our efforts on the Norwich goal were fewer and of lower quality in the second period, HBA firing high and wide with his swinger early on, and both Cisse and Ba failing to register with shots from distance. Arguably our best opportunity came when Dreamboat's shot was hastily beaten down by Ruddy, only for Ba to fluff his attempt to snap up the rebound. Two further penalty shouts also fell on deaf ears - one another handball appeal, the other relating to Zak Whitbread's attempts to rip the shirt from Ba's back at a corner.

But the Canaries, perhaps mindful of the way Wolves hauled themselves back from a deficit a few weeks ago, sensed vulnerability and brittle confidence and fashioned two clear-cut chances of their own. Anthony Pilkington, cleverly played in inside Simpson by David Fox, was denied by Krul's shin while the Dutchman had to be at his acrobatic best to tip over Whitbread's header, the central defender mystifyingly afforded the freedom of our six-yard area.

When Santon was brought on for HBA and Cisse's replacement Big Lad went to the right-hand side of midfield rather than up front, the emphasis became more defensive, with increasing onus on Perchinho in Mr T's central midfield destroyer role - a job he performed with aplomb. Norwich may have been neater and tidier than us on the ball, but were largely kept at arm's length as a result of the endeavours of Perchinho and company.

Paul Lambert's curious decision to summon Grant Holt from the bench with less than a quarter of an hour to play worked in our favour, the lardy bruiser not given enough time to inflict the sort of damage he did at Carrow Road in December. However, fellow striker Steve Morison could have grabbed a last-minute equaliser when (somewhat alarmingly) played in by Whitbread's defensive header, had he not got tangled up under duress from Sideshow Bob.

With both Chelsea and Liverpool in FA Cup action (and both now potentially distracted by semi-finals), it was gratifying that we took the opportunity to close the gap on the Blues while restoring the five-point cushion over the Scousers that had been eroded by their midweek victory in the Merseyside derby. The clean sheet - our first since winning at Ewood Park - was equally pleasing. But, as the Silver Fox was moved to comment afterwards, "we weren't firing on all cylinders" and shouldn't allow the result to detract from deficiencies that a more ruthless side would have exploited.

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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