Norwich City got precisely what they deserved from this afternoon’s FA Cup fifth round home clash with Leicester City – a painful exit on the back of a 2-1 defeat and a whole hatful of bitter what-might-have-beens.
The pill, of course, might be sweetened by the knowledge that they remain just two wins away from Premiership football again next season, but it didn’t stop a brief chorus of boos ringing out at the final whistle – almost a first under Paul Lambert’s watch.
David Nugent’s 70th minute strike robbed the Canaries of their best chance of a last eight appearance in a generation as the home side rarely made their Premiership status count against their Championship visitors who can now look forward with relish to tomorrow’s four o’clock draw.
For the Norwich faithful – who watched today’s dire disappointment unfold in their largest numbers for 30 years – there was little by way of immediate consolation in today’s non-performance that stuttered and coughed its way to a deserved defeat from virtually first minute to last.
Too many players were too way off their usual game to truly test the Foxes; even the goal came from the penalty spot. And even then only at the second attempt after Kasper Schmeichel had saved Wes Hoolahan’s original effort.
“I don’t think anyone would be pat my back if we got to the semi-final of the FA Cup, got knocked out and got relegated out of the Premier League,” said City chief Lambert, who opted to rest skipper Grant Holt, the in-form Andrew Surman and keeper John Ruddy for today’s game. He also took no chances with Kyle Naughton – despite being released to play by Spurs.
Next weekend and Manchester United are in Norfolk. Enough said, one suspects.
“The Premier League is my priority and it always will be – to stay in this league,” said Lambert, taking full responsibility for the team selection.
“If I didn’t think that the players who played weren’t capable of playing in my first team, Naughton would have played, Ruddy would have played, Holt would have played Surman would have played,” he said. “But we never did enough to go through.”
Arguably City’s best moment arrived within the game’s opening 70 seconds as the fit-again Adam Drury slide-ruled the ball down the left touch-line to skipper Hoolahan whose early cross allowed Elliott Bennett to open up an angle for the restored Steve Morison.
Alas the final finish didn’t quite match the slickness of the approach play as the Welsh international dropped a half-hit effort over the Foxes’ bar. And it pretty much went downhill from there chance-wise.
Norwich duly paid the penalty for that early miss three minutes later as Sean St Ledger headed the visitors in front. A rash of corners found the Foxes’ centre-half meeting Ben Marshall’s delivery ahead of Morison and the ball pinged in off Jed Steer’s bar from some eight-yards distant.
It then needed a big interception from Elliott Ward to deny Jermaine Beckford after Lloyd Dyer skipped free away on the Leicester left as the Canaries continued to make what, at best, might be described as a spluttering start. Sloppy and second best would equally apply to the game’s opening 20 minutes. Not that that would change for the next 70.
Then, not for the first time under Lambert’s reign, someone briefly looked after them.
Simeon Jackson’s deflected shot span high into the air. Beneath it awaited Bennett and keeper Schmeichel. Who, according to referee Mike Dean, led with his forearm as he smashed into the back of the Canary winger.
Hoolahan would step up for the spot-kick – and convert the rebound after Schmeichel had saved his first attempt. On the balance of play till then, it was rough justice on the Foxes. But the road to Wembley tends to be littered with such hard luck stories.
Leicester were racking them up in Norfolk. Ward looked a good yard behind the goal-line as he chested Wes Morgan’s effort clear as the young Steer got a little lost fielding Marshall’s 30th minute corner. Fortune – for now – wasn’t favouring the Foxes.
As the half-time whistle went, a rocket would be required in the home dressing room. The one thing the manager would not stand for would be a 1-1 draw.
Leon Barnett almost sneaked City’s second in off a 53rd minute Fox corner only for Richie Wellens to hook out at the far post, but Norwich were still not quite poetry in motion. This was a slog. A big, nasty, uncomfortable slog.
The hour mark brought the big changes; Morison and Jackson made way for Aaron Wilbraham and James Vaughan – the latter’s arrival bringing one of the bigger cheers of the second period following his six-month injury absence.
It became an even bigger bog-of-a-game when Nugent ran all-too easily away from Barnett in the 70th minute and free through the inside right channel buried the Foxes’ second away and beyond a helpless Steer.
Norwich were in need of a cup miracle – something the overall level of their performance suggested was going to be well beyond them. Vaughan almost sneaked a rebound off a Wilbraham effort; Hoolahan would drill tamely at Schmeichel when the chance screamed for a pass.
Still at least Lambert’s biggest wish was granted when the final whistle went. Norwich didn’t draw.