Two goals in two minutes early in the second half were just enough to give Norwich City their second Premier League win of 2013 and ease their growing fears of joining their all-but doomed visitors Reading in relegation.
Gordon was the only Bennett missing as Ryan and Elliott of that ilk scored the goals that settled a real cor-blimey tussle that in the end was as long on passion as it was short on quality.
Garath McCleary’s stunning reply 18 minutes from the end was the goal of the game, but that will be little consolation to him as Reading, now 10 points from a place of safety with 12 to play for, feel the trapdoor trembling beneath them.
Nigel Adkins, four games into his reign as Reading manager and still looking for his first victory, repeatedly used his favourite word, “positivity”, in his after-match assessment, but the word was at odds with the delivery, which had much more to do with inevitability.
“We’ve done well first half,” he asserted. “There was a lot of positivity for a while. For the last half hour we controlled the game.”
Maybe. But that leaves aside the 15 minutes in which Norwich won it – in which, as Adkins had it, “we didn’t deal with the physicality of Norwich City.”
Chris Hughton, the Norwich manager, believes his side are one more win or two draws from safety. “It’ll take more points,” Hughton said. “There are teams around us very capable of winning games, but these three points will take us a lot closer [to safety].”
Criticised lately for fielding only one striker in home matches, Hughton picked two this time, bringing Grant Holt in from the cold to partner Kei Kamara, and early on it looked a good call. Holt was much involved, Elliott Bennett hit a scorching drive just wide and Alex McCarthy saved a smart shot from Javier Garrido. And then Reading began venturing across the halfway line and Norwich’s confidence popped like a bubble.
As well for City, then, that Reading played with all the attacking confidence of a side for whom relegation is starting to look all but a mathematical certainty.
The nearest thing to a first-half goal came in injury time, McCarthy doing well to block Kamara’s excellent 12-yard volley. Soon after the break, the Reading goalkeeper did even better to deny the same player again, pushing his fierce drive over the bar. From the resultant corner, McCarthy saved Holt’s header – but was beaten by the follow-up from Ryan Bennett, a first-half substitute for injured defender Michael Turner. When McCarthy then punched out a cross to the feet of Elliott Bennett, his shot made it 2-0 and the Canaries were back on song.
The England under-21 keeper pulled off further spectacular saves, from another Holt header and a Robert Snodgrass shot as a revived Norwich packed more entertainment into five minutes than both sides together had contrived in the first half.
If it looked like the result of a dressing-room tongue-lashing, Hughton said otherwise. “I was calm at half-time,” he said. “Sometimes it just needs the facts and the fact was we needed to get back to the way we were at the beginning of the game.”
Reading looked dead and gone – until the 72nd minute when McCleary ended an unchallenged run from halfway with an unstoppable shot from the edge of the box. But for all the visitors’ increasingly frenetic endeavours after that the game ended without Norwich goalkeeper Mark Bunn having had a real save to make.
Norwich (4-4-2): Bunn; Martin, Turner (R Bennett, 18), Bassong, Garrido; Snodgrass (Pilkington, 89), Johnson, Howson, E Bennett (Tettey, 80); Kamara, Holt.
Reading (4-4-1-1): McCarthy; Gunter, Morrison Mariappa, Kelly; Blackman, Guthrie, Karacan, McCleary; McAnuff; Pogrebnyak.
Referee: Mike Dean.
Man of the match: Kamara (Norwich)
Match rating: 4/10