A heroic rear-guard action earned ten-man City a priceless point in the Stadium of Light from a game dominated by three controversial decisions by referee Chris Foy and his assistants.
The first half sending-off of keeper, Mark Bunn meant the Canaries had to play for an hour with ten men, but a stirring effort by Chris Hughton’s men saw them claim a deserved share of the spoils from the grittiest of 1-1 draws.
Hughton’s bold move to leave skipper Grant Holt on the bench – Kei Kamara handed the lone striker role – proved a good decision with the Sierra Leonean putting in a fine 65 minute shift before making way for City’s talisman.
With Anthony Pilkington unavailable through injury, Elliott Bennett was drafted in to the City line-up, with Robert Snodgrass being switched across to the left flank in order to provide balance. The decision by Hughton to revert to one up top meant a recall for Wes Hoolahan, providing some extra legs in midfield as well as a link to Kamara.
Sunderland’s line-up showed a real attacking intent with former City target, Danny Graham being added to a strike force that already included Steven Fletcher and Stéphane Sessègnon.
In a really bright opening for the visitors they were able to tap in to the almost tangible nervousness of the home supporters and enjoyed a decent share of possession; Snodgrass and Hoolahan both causing problems for the Black Cats defence in advanced areas.
The first half-chance of the game however fell to the visitors through Sessègnon who wriggled clear from a Michael Turner challenge before shooting wildly over Bunn’s bar.
City’s early industry was rewarded on 26 minutes when they took the lead – their first goal in the Stadium of Light for 16 years. A spell of City pressure resulted in a string of corners and from one such set-piece Snodgrass’ excellent delivery from the right was met by a thumping header from Kamara. With his heading looking goal bound, Hoolahan made sure from a yard out, his header pinging joyously into the roof of Mignolet’s net.
The little Irishman’s header provided a rare moment of joy for the travelling Canary faithful; one that on the balance of play was well deserved.
Alas for Norwich the lead was short lived and in THE critical moment of the game, just three minutes after the goal, the visitors found themselves down to ten men.
A header by Michael Turner, intended to roll safely back to his keeper, fell well short and necessitated Bunn to race out of his area to attempt to clear. Unfortunately in a foot-race with Graham, the City keeper came off second best with the former Swansea man looking to flick the ball over him for a clear run on goal. Bunn’s decision to block, albeit with his arms aloft, gave referee Foy the chance to adjudge handball and with undue hesitation the red card was brandished.
Despite City protestations – the clear feeling was that the ball had struck Bunn’s chest – Hughton was forced into a reshuffle that resulted in Hoolahan’s shift ending prematurely; Lee Camp taking over the gloves in his ‘second’ City debut.
On this occasion City were spared the double-whammy of a sending off and a goal when Craig Gardner’s resultant free-kicked fizzed past Camp’s right hand post.
However they didn’t have to wait long for the predictable blow to the solar plexus when, five minutes before the interval, Sunderland were again the recipients of a controversial decision. This time Bassong was harshly adjudged to have handballed with the ball skipping up awkwardly off the surface; Fletcher looking suspiciously offside just prior to the incident.
More City protests followed – Snodgrass picking up a booking for his efforts – but with Foy and his team seemingly intent on ruining their afternoon the die was cast. Gardner made no mistake from the spot – firing high into Camp’s top right-hand corner –and the Black Cats went in at the interval buoyed by the gift of a priceless lifeline.
In the second period, faced with an uphill task, City were forced into soaking up long spells of Sunderland pressure but – with Turner and Bassong again magnificent in the heart of the City defence – they reduced the home side to mostly long range, speculative efforts.
When called upon, Camp proved himself a very capable and confident deputy, albeit ably assisted by some wayward shooting from an increasingly fraught and panicky home side.
For their part, City did still manage to look a threat on the break and from, one such rare forward foray, they did create the best chance of the entire game. Holt seized on a mistake by ex-Ipswich man Titus Bramble – on for the injured Carlos Cuellar – but, faced one-on-one with Mignolet, a heavy first touch gave the Sunderland keeper a chance to block; the City skipper’s resultant two-footed challenge earning him a yellow card.
The biggest talking point of the second half arrived courtesy of some more wayward officialdom; Danny Rose clearly handling Russell Martin’s cross inside the Sunderland box but Mr Foy and his assistant – the same official that adjudged Bassong to have handballed – somehow concluding that it took place just outside.
Despite Martin O’Neill throwing on the attacking talents of James McLean and Connor Wickham the City defence held. Canary hearts were in mouths just three minutes from time when Sessègnon worked himself a great opening inside the box,but fortunately for City he slashed his shot horribly wide.
In a frantic opening City themselves created a great chance when substitute Steven Whittaker – on for Snodgrass – went on a fine run down the City left; his final ball into the box eluding an outstretched Holt.
While the final whistle may well have been music to the ears of Hughton, his team and the magnificent travelling Yellow Army – a point being the least they deserved for commitment alone –they were left ruing the fact that all of the day’s big decisions went against them.
Eleven v eleven for 90 minutes and most would agree there were three points there for the taking, but 34 points with eight to play represents a position of relative comfort – albeit one not helped by Wigan’s late win over Newcastle.
Two more wins… then hopefully we can all relax.
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