City boss Paul Lambert tonight confirmed what many had long, long suspected – that this season’s promotion race will be nip and tuck all the way to the finishing line.
Nottingham Forest and Swansea City were today’s big winners – the pair both picking up three points apiece as the Canaries dug out a great away-point from a thrilling 2-2 draw with long-time rivals Leeds.
It left City in fifth spot tonight; still two points to the good on the Whites, albeit with just three points now dividing the five clubs in second to sixth spot.
Cardiff were the day’s big losers – floored by that 2-1 win for Forest at the City Ground. And all courtesy of a Rob Earnshaw winner, to boot.
A goal on the stroke of half-time from the on-loan Henri Lansbury and a second-half strike from, according to the manager, the “outstanding” Wes Hoolahan proved enough to give the visitors a share of the spoils – even if the honours belonged firmly to the hosts in the opening 45 minutes.
“I think the draw was fair,” Lambert told BBC Radio Norfolk afterwards, with the Canaries now looking to bag all three points in the home clash with struggling Doncaster Rovers on Tuesday night.
And that’s probably the key fact to today’s result; you like to win as many of your home games as you can.
For Leeds, this was two, big home points dropped – even if both managers suggested that there was still little between the two, old League One title rivals.
“Two, very good sides and a terrific game for the Championship,” said Lambert, with City’s full allocation of 2,300 travelling supporters given equally full value for their time and money this afternoon.
The injury to Leon Barnett forced the City chief into changes; Zak Whitbread stepping back in alongside Elliott Ward.
The American, Lambert suggested, was immense as the home side looked to capitalise on Luciano Becchio’s 16th minute opener.
“I thought that was as good a performance centre-half wise as you’re going to see,” was Lambert’s verdict afterwards.
“He put his body on the line; he had a terrific header at the back post where it looked a certain goal and I’m delighted for Zak because of the [injury] problems that he’s had.”
The 27-year-old Texan made his first appearance of the season on December 28th and the 4-2 home win over Sheffield United.
Last season and he made just four following his January switch from Millwall. Fortune hasn’t favoured him.
But now, hopefully, Lady Luck is starting to smile.
And with Barnett out for the rest of the season, Whitbread can look forward to a clear run of games – providing, as ever, he manages to steer clear of further injuries.
“I think he is a top player,” said Lambert. “And it has been frustrating for him – on a personal level more than anything – but equally for me and the football club. But I’m delighted to see him perform in the way that he did today.”
The City boss also pointed to a ‘monumental’ save by Canary keeper John Ruddy to deny United’s Billy Paynter in the game’s dying moment.
“For the last few months now John Ruddy has been on top of his game,” said Lambert, his preparations for this weekend’s big game rocked by two, new injuries to follow on from the Barnett blow.
First Chris Martin picked up an injury on Thursday which will sideline the City striker for “a few weeks” while – rather more dramatically – Simon Lappin was rushed to hospital overnight with the onset of suspected appendicitis.
He, too, could be sidelined for a few weeks – adding further pressure on the manager to dip into Michael Foulger’s £2 million war-chest whilst the ‘emergency’ loan window remains open.
Aaron Wilbraham stepped in alongside skipper Grant Holt; the fit-again Andrew Surman having to settle for another late, walk-on part once Gunners starlet Lansbury had done his bit.
“He [Lappin] wasn’t feeling too bad travelling, but last night it really flared up and as everybody knows with your appendix, if they burst then you’re in trouble. So we’ll have to see how he’s feeling,” said Lambert.
Hoolahan’s nose for space and a little, outside of the boot finish beneath an exposed keeper was probably the pick of the two Norwich goals – even if it did finally fly into the roof of the net off a despairing defender.
It all tees it up nicely for Tuesday’s home clash with Doncaster; three more points there and Norwich will continue to dream the impossible dream.