10-man City had to make do with a point on their home return to the Premier League after Kenwyne Jones’ injury-time header gave Stoke a late, late point at Carrow Road.
The Canaries went into the break one goal up after Richie De Laet’s glancing header sent the Norfolk faithful into raptures and to be fair, they looked like holding on to that lead, despite seeing Leon Barnett sent off in the 63rd minute for his part in a collision with Jon Walters in and around the edge of the box.
Pantomime villain Walters saw his resultant penalty well saved by John Ruddy and it was looking like Norwich would see the game out, the odd hairy moment aside.
But former Sunderland striker Jones met a sweet Glenn Whelan cross to give the Potters a share of the spoils. Not that City boss Paul Lambert was too pleased with the spot-kick decision by Neil Swarbrick, mind.
While he agreed that it was probably a foul, the Scot was adamant that the initial contact came outside of the penalty area.
“He’s at least three yards outside of the box,” said Lambert on the game-changing incident. “How he gave that, I do not know. It’s hard enough him getting sent off for it but the initial contact was outside.
“I think it was a free-kick, yes, but you are getting hit twice with it being a penalty and a sending off.”
Canary chief Lambert refused to be downbeat, however. After a thoroughly spirited display, he was more than proud of his team.
“I thought we were excellent. The effort was brilliant. When you go down to 10 men at this level, it’s really tough. With eleven men, I think we would have seen it through.”
Predictably, it was a full-blooded start to proceedings and in the first five minutes Norwich looked the sharpest with home debutant Anthony Pilkington keen to impress.
After nine minutes, Barnett appeared to be manhandled in the box after a Bradley Johnson cross but the referee waved away the appeal.
On 20 minutes, Andrew Crofts almost got on the end of a searing cross from the left-wing and City were looking to get on the front foot again after a small lull. Two minutes later, a superb headed knock-back from Grant Holt, via a beautiful cross-field ball from Kyle Naughton, fell into the path of the lively Pilkington but his powerful shot was deflected wide of the goal.
On 29 minutes a marauding run down the left-wing in true Matthew Etherington style almost brought about a goal for the visitors but Ruddy was equal to the former Spurs man’s shot.
It was City who made the breakthrough, however, on 37 minutes and they gave the Potters a taste of their own medicine with De Laet glancing his header past Asmir Begovic after a curling Bradley Johnson free-kick from the right.
It was the Canaries’ first Premier League goal at Carrow Road since 2005 and the home faithful certainly celebrated appropriately.
The Europa League new boys started the second period with plenty of intent but it was the hosts who created the first real chance of the half and it came from nowhere with the previously quiet Chrissy Martin firing goalwards from the edge of the box; Begovic did well to keep it out.
On 55 minutes, Johnson did his level best to poke the ball in the direction of the net after an edge-of-the-box game of pinball but his effort wasn’t near enough to trouble the Potters ‘keeper.
Etherington was always the danger man for the Potteries club and if it wasn’t his direct running on the left-hand side causing City problems, it was his free-kicks, with Ruddy doing well to tip one over on 58 minutes.
City were looking reasonably comfortable but that all changed on 63 when Barnett was given his marching orders after a ‘coming together’ with Walters.
The former Ipswich striker just nipped in front of the Canary centre-back and as Walters was as good as through on goal, the referee decided to give a penalty and brandish the red card. To be honest, I’ve seen them given; I’ve seen them waved away.
City ‘stopper Ruddy was more than up to the task, however, and to a backdrop of boos, the ex-Suffolk favourite Walters saw his effort parried by the Canary No.1.
Stoke sensed their chance against the 10 men though and on 72 minutes it was that man Walters again who almost got his team level. A superb threaded pass found him inside the box and with the goal at his mercy, he shot just over.
Tony Pulis’ men were pressing but it wasn’t all one-way traffic and you couldn’t rule out a Norwich goal on the counter-attack. They were certainly matching Stoke’s physical presence, vindicating Lambert’s decision to make six changes from last week’s Wigan clash and ‘beef up’ his starting eleven.
On 82 minutes the ball fizzed across the Canary goalmouth but Stoke still couldn’t get that breakthrough and City were getting ever closer to their first three points on their return to the top flight.
Sadly for the vociferous home crowd, a bit of Premier League quality shone through in injury time with an inch-perfect Whelan cross finding the head of Jones. And that was that.
You could say it was disappointing given the circumstances but the Norfolk nation would have probably taken a draw before proceedings. With the spirit on show today, Lambert’s men will be no pushovers in 2011/12.
City: Ruddy; Naughton, Barnett, De Laet, Tierney; Bennett (Surman 75), Crofts, Johnson, Pilkington (Ayala 63); Holt, C Martin (Jackson 84).
Subs: Rudd, R Martin, Hoolahan, Fox.
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