City’s improved form and fortunes of late took a festive nose-dive this afternoon after an 88th minute pearler from the tireless Scott Parker gave Fulham a 2-1 win.
It was pretty much what Norwich deserved after failing miserably to build on Gary Hooper’s first-half opener and delivered a a Christmas performance that was more pudding than cracker as Fulham grew in belief and ascendancy and left the Canaries scratching and scrabbling about for a way back into the contest.
The leveller was a horrible free-kick that skipped beneath a disintegrating wall and whilst Parker’s eventual winner was right out of the top drawer, Norwich never really looked like delivering something of a similar ilk finish-wise.
They were short in pretty much every area of the pitch – the only bright news arriving from elsewhere as both Cardiff and West Ham lost at home again.
It was a glorious opportunity missed and will merely re-ignite the debate around the manner in which Norwich set out their stall – particularly once they have nicked an early goal. At that point do you stick or twist? Go hell for leather to kill the contest there and then or settle back into your shell and hope you have already done just enough?
Goals win games – and Norwich need to have more than one in them.
Manager Chris Hughton had earlier resisted the temptation to throw record signing Ricky van Wolfswinkel back into the fray from the start following the Dutchman’s recent toe troubles.
Instead, Johan Elmander continued to offer the more muscular edge to City’s frontline alongside the in-form Hooper as the Canaries looked to add to Fulham’s discomfort at the foot of the table.
It took them just 13 minutes to achieve that particular aim – and to initially justify the manager’s faith in his frontline pairing as Elmander teed up Hooper on the edge of the Fulham box and his strike deflected off, down, up and away into the top corner for his fifth goal in eight Premier League outings.
He could have doubled his tally in the 25th minute when a horror mix-up of Canary-esque standards allowed the 25-year-old a second sight of goal only for his instinctive, first-time effort to skip wide of the far upright.
In between Adel Taarabt and Pajtim Kasami had had a poke at John Ruddy’s goal; the best chance, however, fell to Damien Duff in the 27th minute from a Kasami cross. To Norwich’s relief, Duff failed to wrap his foot right round the ball and he directed it just wide of the target when the leveller was there for the taking.
As ever, the home faithful would sit a lot easier in their seats if Hooper could, indeed, magic up a second strike – a point hammered home in the 31st minute when the ever-willing Parker charged down a Ruddy clearance fore-arm first and as the ball rolled into an empty net, so a distant official waved his flag for handball. But the warning signs were there.
A minute later and they got what they deserved as Kasami squeezed the equaliser inside Ruddy’s left-hand post off a 22-yard free-kick. More importantly, he squeezed it beneath an all-too ragged wall would have infuriated the City boss. It fell apart, in short.
Once again, Norwich were their own worst enemies defensively as the early momentum delivered by Hooper’s latest effort disappeared in an instant. It was all a bit dismal with inspiration in distinctly short supply as the interval loomed. Change would be required if the Canaries were to prise the full three points out of today’s proceedings.
City started the second period with a degree of greater bite and purpose, but it was still proving something of a lukewarm encounter with little to commend it.
Nathan Redmond found his way behind the Fulham back four only for his low cross to be snatched off Hooper’s toes by keeper David Stockdale.
Sascha Riether was the thorn in Norwich’s side moments later as he cleared Leroy Fer’s free header off the goalline with his keeper between. It was better from Norwich, but still lacked the convincing final finish that the occasion demanded.
Cue van Wolfswinkel for Elmander as ‘The Wolfman’ was handed a good 30 minutes to make his point – and earn Norwich three. Before the end and Wes Hoolahan would be handed a similar brief: do something different to win this game…
It was fast getting into the territory of one false move now and the game would be over – that false move almost belonged to Ruddy as he lost sight of a 77th minute corner and in a horrible far post scramble Hugo Rodallega was convinced that he had done enough to claim the second goal as the City No1 clawed it back from somewhere on his goalline. The replays would prove the officials correct. City had survived – by a whisker.
It was all very, very nervy stuff as the game entered its final moments. Van Wolfswinkel would find Parker clearing him out as he looked to make his mark; Martin Olsson would blaze well wide as Steve Sidwell likewise closed at pace. Norwich were simply not finding either the time or the space to kill the contest.
But Parker did. With devastating effect.