Well, the others did their best for us. We knew after Millwall’s slip last night that a victory today and anything other than a win for Leeds would suddenly mean it was all in our own hands – win the final three games and we were up. But a combination of unconvincing finishing, good goalkeeping, and bad luck conspired against us and, despite Leeds losing and Swindon only drawing at home against Walsall, we find ourselves back in fifth with three games left. It ain’t over yet, but even three wins now means the other three involved having to drop points. Nothing we can do about it, just dust ourselves down and prepare for Exeter.
For once the game’s stats just about speak for themselves. According to the BBC site we had nine attempts on target and seven off target, against two and one respectively for Norwich. Possession was 68% to 32% in our favour. That’s enough to underline that we didn’t get the breaks; they’re also enough to underline that we should have got something out of the game. But it wasn’t just a case of one of those days when the gods are against you. Their keeper had a fair claim to man of the match, but each of the string of saves he made you would have to say were good but – with the possible exception of one to turn away a short range header – not brilliant. None of the half-chances that fell our way were grabbed with conviction. Having got their goal Norwich showed precious little attacking intent through the second half. Not surprisingly they just wanted the final whistle. In that context our failure to score – and just four goals in the last six games – tells as much of the story.
The team lined up as on Tuesday night (when eventually I was able to enjoy my glass of cognac in an Amsterdam bar), with Burton and Elliot both on the bench. And we started the game with purpose and conviction. It seemed a bit route one, but with Sodje(A) and Forster causing them problems in the air it wasn’t sterile. Racon and Semedo were working well together, while Sam caused them all sorts of problems and delivered a series of threatening crosses. It was all very encouraging, just needed a goal. The clearest chances for us in the first half fell to Bailey, but one curling shot was turned round the post and he did make a hash of a free kick just outside the area.
After a sluggish start Norwich did come more into the game, and while their attacks were infrequent they carried menace. Rather out of the blue they worked it down the left and a wicked cross was headed home by the onrunning forward, only for the linesman’s flag to rule it out. Not long after one of their delivered a stinging shot from outside the box which Randolph did superbly to turn it around the post. However, the reprieve was temporary as the resulting corner was swung to the far post and amid a host of players one of their jumped highest and buried it. We’d had three or four poorly delivered corners, they had one and made the most of it.
Just before the break Sodje(A) seemed to pick up an injury and was replaced by Burton. From then on the direct approach was less effective, but after the break Norwich were increasingly content to sit behind the ball and hold what they had. And we continued to play well outside the box, which paved the way for a string of chances in a 20-minute spell. Shots were either scuffed, deflected, or saved well, while other promising situations went begging. Racon was playing well, but he found himself in good shooting positions and failed to deliver a decisive strike. We were gifted another free kick outside the area when Racon lost control of the ball but found a leg to fall over. This time Bailey curled it around the wall on target, but it wasn’t hit that hard and the keeper had the time to get across and make the save. Probably the best moment came when we worked the ball well down the right and a good cross in was met well only to be saved yet again.
With a great deal of effort having been put in, we were looking tired in the last 20 minutes and not surprisingly changes were made. Reid came on for Semedo, who’d done nothing wrong but had to be sacrificed, with Bailey moving inside. And late on Bailey, who had a rather subdued game and was struggling, departed for Shelvey. By now the time-wasting was reaching absurd levels, but having given their keeper a yellow the ref was never likely to make it a red when he just continued to take as long as before over every dead ball. With five minutes of stoppage time there was just time for us to win a free kick after Sam was flattened. Randolph went forward but instead of the ball going into the box we played it short and managed to lose possession.
Congratulations to Norwich. We’d have done exactly the same in their position. For us it’s a case of taking the positives from having played well and just going out and beating Exeter, then hope for favours from elsewhere. A point today would have made a good deal of difference, but it’s still too soon to settle for the play-offs.
Randolph: 8/10. The one actual shot on target from Norwich brought an excellent save. Dealt well with everything else, which mostly involved back passes. And I don’t think he could have got to the corner.
Richardson: 9/10. I thought he was excellent today, not least getting forward in the second half and carrying the game to them.
Borrowdale: 6/10. Like the rest of the defence wasn’t stretched due to Norwich’s intentions, but unlike Richardson he didn’t take advantage to get forward much. With Bailey no natural winger it meant little threat down our left side.
Sodje(S): 8/10. Good interceptions, effective game. Just have to ask who should have got up highest for their corner.
Dailley: 9/10. I was tempted to make it a 10. I thought he was just about perfect today (and I voted for him as player of the season), covering well and reading everything. Would have been a perfect score but for that corner.
Bailey: 6/10. We know he’s not a real winger, but he did get into good positions in the first half and could have scored. Seemed to tire badly in the second half and struggled when switched to the centre before going off.
Semedo: 8/10. Did everything we could ask of him in terms of protecting the defence and winning the ball. No fault of his to be substituted.
Racon: 7/10. Would have been a better mark if his shooting from good positions hadn’t been poor. Otherwise he played really well.
Sam: 8/10. Was the outstanding attacking player on either side in the first half, every cross carried threat. Found it tougher in the second as space was harder to find, but there was no questioning his effort and commitment today.
Forster: 6/10. Did good work in the first half and almost got in on a couple of occasions. Didn’t work as well with Burton and bottom line was we had a number of chances and didn’t take them.
Sodje(A): 7/10. Caused them problems before going off injured.
Subs: Burton (6/10 – some good touches and lay-offs, won some free kicks, didn’t score); Reid (6/10 – unable to deliver decisive contribution against what was by the time he came on a massed defence); Shelvey (6/10 – not much time on the pitch, looked comfortable on the ball and passed well, but Norwich were giving up the space by then).