Wednesday 24 February 2021
It all ended in a bit of a whimper, but for long stretches of this game Blues were the most likely as they gave the league leaders a much tougher game than anyone, myself included, had expected.
Indeed, with the rub of the green at the right times, we could have won this game in what was, up until the last quarter of an hour, probably our best display of the season, given the quality of the opposition.
That we didn’t run Norwich closer was in no small part down to one of Karanka’s main achilles heels this season – substitutions. By the time the Canaries took the lead, the substitutions had left us with no ammunition to fight back, save Roberts’ tired old long throw routine. We ended up, again, with two guys upfront with nobody to cross the ball to them. Added to that the drive from midfield of Gardner has also been withdrawn. This resulted in us not getting anywhere near creating a chance as Norwich coasted to victory.
Quite rightly Karanka had started with the same eleven who began the victory at Hillsborough on Saturday. And, for most of the time when that eleven were on the park, they looked like they knew what they were doing, they looked like a team.
Despite having by far the best of the first half, Blues only came in level at the break.
To be fair, though, Norwich could have been out of sight, after Etheridge atoned for his own error by saving the weak penalty from Pukki which would have put Norwich two up.
On the other hand, we could have gone in at half time leading as Hogan blazed over the bar after Gardner, probably Blues’ man of the match, slipped him through and he was one-on-one with the Norwich keeper, Krul. It was a bad miss that would come back to haunt us as we never created another chance as clear cut as this in the game.
Nearly all our chances had been of the half variety, characterised by the ball not breaking at the crucial moment. Compare and contrast with Norwich’s second goal on 76 which killed the game. An unfortunate break off Harlee Dean lands perfectly for Pukki in the box, the kind of chance the Finn doesn’t miss. To be honest not the kind of chance I’d spurn, and I’m 57 and haven’t kicked a ball in anger for over twenty years.
Pukki’s opener on 25 minutes had been a lot better, a shot across Etheridge from just inside the box on the left hand side.
I know we don’t create that many chances, but, oh, for an all round goalscorer like Pukki who scores all kinds of goals from all areas in the last third of the pitch.
Our midfield had been good in this game. It was a mystery as to why two of them, Harper and Gardner, got the hook. Bela, the better of the wingers, who were both substituted as Karanka rendered us impotent.
The other winger, Sanchez’s only moment of note was the equaliser. On 38, Hogan had capitalised on Krul’s poor clearance to rob a dithering Max Aarons, he moved it on to Gardner who, in turn, slid it through to the Spaniard. Sanchez’s first shot was saved by Krul, but he netted the rebound for only his second goal of the season.
Trailing by just one with fifteen minutes plus to go, we were still in it. While I’m not saying that we’d necessarily have equalised, the fact that Karanka didn’t rectify his error by bringing on, say, Leko or Halilovic, shows that the manager’s defensive mindset often clouds his game management view.
Skipp’s breakaway third in injury time rubbed salt into the wounds and put a gloss on the result which neither Blues nor Norwich deserved.
If we can forget the last quarter of an hour, there were many positives to be taken from this game. Let this team have a run of games and we should be alright. Let’s just be careful that this wasn’t another case of playing well against the big boys only to slip up against the lesser lights. A beatable QPR on Saturday will tell us where we stand on that score.
MoM – Gary Gardner – liked Harper and Clarke-Salter as well.