Koumas fails to break the stalemate

Norwich City 0 West Bromwich Albion 0
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The Independent Football

The top of the First Division remained relatively unchanged last night after the leaders, Norwich, and the side three points behind them strained every sinew, not to mention every shred of the referee Brian Curson's patience, in a supercharged stalemate that saw seven players booked - four for the home side, three for the visitors.

At this awkward stage of the season, with teams almost but not quite on the final charge for glory, the word that seems to have been mentioned more than any other by managers of those on the brink of big things is complacency.

The West Bromwich Albion manager, Gary Megson, had warned against it five days earlier before his side's home defeat to Rotherham. Last night it was the turn of his Norwich counterpart, Nigel Worthington, to enter a crucial match with a nod to the C-word. "You cannot take this game for granted in any way, shape or form," Worthington went on to intone.

Megson's players already knew that as they took to the field with three changes from their previous match and a revived line-up involving five rather than four at the back in the absence of Darren Moore. Up front, Delroy Facey, a New Year's arrival from Bolton Wanderers, made his first start in place of Lee Hughes.

In the course of a predictably hectic first half, it became clear that both sets of players had fully heeded their managers' advice. There was no time for complacency; there was hardly time for anything, such was the general commitment.

It was Albion's Welsh international midfielder Jason Koumas who first managed to impose order as he came close twice to opening the scoring, in the 19th and 22nd minutes. The first chance saw him glide past four challenges before clipping back a shot narrowly wide of the left-hand post. Three minutes later, he produced a driving run through the middle before concluding with a shot that Robert Green barely managed to hold.

A minute before the half-hour, Albion appeared to have been robbed of an even clearer opportunity to go ahead after Facey produced an accurate but medium-paced shot on goal that Craig Fleming was able to block. But in doing so the Norwich defender knocked the ball from thigh to hand before clearing. It looked a blatant penalty.

The home side was struggling, but they finished the half with a flourish that could easily have seen them score. After 38 minutes, the rampaging Darren Huckerby should have had a free-kick on the edge of the box when he was pulled down by Paul Robinson.

If anything, the pace grew even more frantic in the second half, and Norwich had to thank the reflexes of their goalkeeper for maintaining parity just minutes after the re-start when he kicked away a Facey cross with Horsfield poised for the header and then recovered in time to parry Andy Johnson's follow-up.

With 17 minutes remaining, there was another shout for a penalty, this time from the home side, as the substitute Mathias Svensson appeared to be clearly manhandled in the box by Thomas Gaardsoe. The Swede became the sixth man to be booked, for dissent, in what was becoming an increasingly dour battle.

Norwich City (4-4-2): Green; Edworthy, Fleming, Mackay, Drury (Mulryne, 58); McVeigh (McKenzie, 88), Francis, Holt, Brennan; Roberts (Svensson, 70), Huckerby. Substitutes not used: Crichton (gk), Shackell.

West Bromwich Albion (5-3-2): Hoult; Haas, Chambers, Gaardsoe, Gregan, Robinson; Johnson, Kinsella (Clemence, 88), Koumas; Horsfield, Facey (Dobie, 69). Substitutes not used: Murphy (gk), O'Connor, Volmer.

Referee: B Curson (Leics).