A magnificent one-man show from Canary keeper David Marshall this afternoon papered over all manner of cracks as the Canaries last hopes of a charge into the play-offs all but ended with a 1-0 defeat at the Ricoh Stadium.
In the end, Jay Tabb's sixth minute strike proved the only difference between the two teams as Norwich steadfastly refused to yield again – despite having had Gary Doherty dismissed for two yellows in the 52nd minute; Darel Russell – fresh from returning from his three-match ban – followed suit six minutes from the end after a late trip on Tabb earned his second booking of the contest by referee Paul Taylor.
With City boss Glenn Roeder having made two tactical changes within the first 30 minutes as his initial 4-5-1 plan went out of the window, the fact that the Canaries would finish the game with only nine men – and still only a goal down – was testament to someone's performance in the midst of the wreckage.
Step forward Marshall who would pull out all his stops to thwart the Sky Blues and on this performance must surely be getting closer and closer to figuring large in George Burley's World Cup thinking.
It was, however, a rare plus point in a difficult afternoon at the Ricoh. Jason Shackell played his part too – in particular, with a superb 89th minute tackle as substitute Robbie Simpson looked nailed on to add No2. Before the end and Jamie Cureton almost grabbed an injury-time leveller with a superb volley – only for the other Marshall to push the ball wide to his right.
Earlier as the Canaries ran out into a blustery, half-empty Ricoh Stadium this afternoon, so all the early interest centred on Norwich's new-look formation as Roeder opted to throw Coventry old-boy Dion Dublin into battle as a lone striker – a policy that, in turn, allowed him to slip Darel Russell back into his midfield without having to dispense with the services of either Matty Pattison or Mark Fotheringham.
It was swiftly obvious that both Lee Croft on the right and Ryan Bertrand on the left had been given orders to push up and wide as often as possible to stretch the Coventry back line wide enough to enable Russell to drive forward with relative freedom. In short, it was one of those tactical moot points whether the Canaries were more 4-3-3 than 4-5-1.
Whatever the thinking, it went out of the window after just six minutes as Tabb broke into the space behind Spanish right-back Juan Velasco. Pulling the ball back inside, Tabb took one look up and drilled a fine, 16-yard shot low and inside Marshall's right-hand post.
As Michael Doyle found all the time and space that he needed to thread Tabb in, it didn't help Norwich's cause that Russell was off the field having the blood wiped from a mouth wound sustained in an earlier tangle with Doyle. Minus his marker, the visitors paid a heavy price for being that one-man down.
It could have been worse. A minute later and Leon Best was muscling his way through that inside-left channel and forcing an over-worked Marshall (David) into a fine, brave save at his feet. Five minutes later and Pattison was horribly robbed just outside his own penalty area and Kevin Thornton was unlucky to see his low shot clip the base of Marshall's right-hand post.
Norwich were wobbling in almighty fashion as Velasco, in particular, found Tabb too hot to handle. It all had something of the Leicesters about it as the home faithful took considerable delight in asking Dublin what the score was. As for the Canaries, they needed to regroup, rethink and regain their composure before Coventry added to their woes.
Evidence that Roeder was not one to muck around if things were clearly going astray was not long in coming, as he made his first change of the afternoon with Alex Pearce replacing the hapless Velasco after just 21 minutes. If you were gunning to earn a longer-term deal in Norfolk, being hauled off after just 20 minutes did not bode too well for the 30-year-old one-time Spanish international.
He might, in fairness, have been carrying a knock. Either way, Roeder wasn't about to hang around as Gary Doherty found himself slung out on the right in a repeat of the role he performed away at Stoke City last autumn. Jon Otsemobor could be the biggest beneficiary – certainly come the Potters return to Carrow Road on Tuesday night.
Roeder wasn't finished there, however, as Roeder ripped up the 4-5-1 plan altogether as Jamie Cureton rejoined Dublin up front, Pattison went wide to the left and Bertrand back to left-back. All of which left Mo Camara as the one to join Velasco back in the dressing room with less than half an hour on the clock.
In fairness, if it clearly ain't working then there is always a strong case for trying to fix it as swiftly as possible – certainly whilst you are still only a goal down. Whether it would prompt the change in performance Roeder was looking for would be the next question.
One thing was, however, certain. The two-way radio link between Roeder in the directors' box and Lee Clark on the touchline was working loud and clear as they pulled their original team thinking apart and started again. In amongst it all, Andy Marshall had barely set eyes on the ball in the Coventry goal.
That kind of changed seven minutes before the break as Dublin's header released Pattison down the left and his early, low cross forced Marshall into a sharp collection at the feet of the lurking Cureton. That was better – signs of a little shape and purpose to Norwich's play. But for as long as Coventry remained only one goal distant, so Roeder would figure he had something to work with. Just.
Equally, given their precarious position just above the drop zone Sky Blues boss Chris Coleman might go into the interval wishing he had taken rather more advantage of Norwich's early disarray.
Not that a re-arranged City side was without its problems. A minute before the break and Doherty looked exactly what he was – a centre-back playing at right-back as Tabb skipped all too easily away from him and onto Isaac Osbourne's long diagonal ball. A hefty hand on Tabb's disappearing shoulder prompted the first yellow card of the contest as the Coventry winger was sent tumbling a yard outside the Norwich box.
Not for the first time, Marshall (David) had to have all his wits about him as Pearce left a back-header dangerously short; the Canary No1 whipping the ball off Kevin Thornton's forehead. You suspect that there would be much to discuss in the Norwich dressing room at the break; how they were only 1-0 down being among the topics up for lively debate.
The second-half certainly started in lively enough fashion. Croft forced a free-kick on the very corner of the Coventry box which Mark Fotheringham smartly rolled into the path of Cureton. His first-time strike was sweet enough – as was Andy Marshall's save low to his left.
A minute later and courtesy of a wonderful back-heel from Best, Thornton wriggled through only to poke his 12-yard shot wide as Pearce and Marshall (David) closed. The fun and games didn't stop there, however, as Doherty's half-hearted challenge on Tabb prompted his second yellow card of the afternoon which swiftly became red as the Canaries were reduced to ten men for the final 40 minutes of the contest.
A man and a goal to the good, Sky Blues skipper Stephen Hughes drilled a 53rd minute effort just over as Coventry sniffed blood. Bookings to both Bertrand and Russell kept the temperature boiling as Roeder made his way to the touchline – in time to watch Hughes scoop an even better chance over from little more than eight-yards out.
Marshall, in fairness, continued to do his bit to keep City vaguely in the game as he denied a hooked shot from Elliott Ward after Hughes had lifted a teasing free-kick into the box. In the meantime Fotheringham saw yellow; Russell found him
self as Norwich's third right-back; Dublin made his way to centre-half as Croft made way for Ched Evans. It wasn't without incident as Coventry tightened the screw ever harder.
In fairness, City merely dug ever deeper. And despite all their woes, actually began to carve out the odd half-chance here and there. It certainly needed a hasty block from an alert Elliott Ward to deny Cureton after smart work from Russell and Evans. At the other end, Marshall was proving a one-man wall as he he beat away another rasping Hughes drive to seal his man of the match honours. He produced even greater heroics in the 74th minute to thwart a free run and fierce drive from Michael Mifsud.
Were the Canaries to get anything out of the day's contest, it would be down to the City No1. His performance towered above any of his colleagues.
Coventry City (4-5-1): Marshall, A; Osbourne, Ward, Dann, Fox; Mifsud, Tabb, Hughes, Doyle, Thornton; Best. Subs (not used): Ireland, Hall, Andrews, Simpson, Gray.
Norwich City (4-5-1): Marshall, D; Velasco (Pearce, 21 mins), Camara (Cureton, 27 mins), Shackell, Doherty; Croft (Evans, 60 mins), Fotheringham, Russell, Pattison, Bertrand; Dublin. Subs (not used): Gilks, Gibbs.
Man of the Match: David Marshall.