MIDDLESBROUGH are back on top of the Sky Bet Championship – for the time being at least.
An early own goal from Alex Tettey has boosted Boro’s automatic promotion prospects after damaging back-to-back away defeats to fellow closest challengers Bournemouth and Watford.
Boro boss Aitor Karanka said before the game that defeat at Carrow Road would have spelt the end of their top-two hopes – but they are now on course to end their six-year hiatus from the Barclays Premier League.
The Teessiders showed pure steel with centre-backs Dani Ayala and Ben Gibson magnificent at the back as Boro registered their 20th clean sheet of the campaign.
But Boro still require some assistance from elsewhere – they must win their last two matches against Fulham (A) and Reading (H) and hope Bournemouth and Watford drop points somewhere in their last three fixtures.
With Middlesbrough now top of the table it is hard to describe this 1-0 victory as an upset though Norwich had won 12 in 15 games, and came into the clash on a five-match winning streak.
Karanka’s side had the better of the first half and took the lead in the eighth minute as a vital touch from Tettey sent Grant Leadbitter’s corner into his own net.
Although Alex Neil saw the hosts dominate play after the interval, they still could not create a clear-cut chance and it was Boro who came closest to adding to their lead.
The first chance of the evening fell to Jelle Vossen as Patrick Bamford flicked on Albert Adomah’s cross, but the Belgian could only angle a shot over John Ruddy’s bar.
Boro had settled the quickest and carved Norwich open again soon after – but this time Sebastien Bassong was on hand to cut out Bamford’s cross – with Vossen free in the area.
Middlesbrough got the goal their early endeavours deserved as Leadbitter’s resulting corner came off the back of the unwitting Tettey and beat Ruddy at his back post. Adomah claimed the decisive goal but the ball had already crossed the line.
Things could have got worse for Neil’s side on 12 minutes as Bamford’s mishit shot was collected by Lee Tomlin, whose low cross was almost turned in by Ruddy.
Bamford and Tomlin were causing problems for the experienced Norwich defence and the leading scorer got in behind the Norwich backline again before hitting a tame effort towards goal.
Jonny Howson passed up a great chance to equalise when he glanced a header wide when picked out in the middle of the penalty area – with the Canaries still very much second best.
Boro keeper Dimi Konstantopoulos was forced into action for the first time to keep out Wes Hoolahan’s low shot with the ex-Pools stopper then intercepting three crosses towards the end of the first half as Norwich rallied.
The home fans screamed for a penalty just before half-time only for referee Bobby Madley to book Hoolahan for diving inside the area after running at Tomas Kalas and going to ground.
Bamford had been nursing a sore ankle before the interval but was soon proving a thorn in the side of the Norwich defence once again, this time seeing his low shot pushed away by Ruddy just seconds after the restart.
Norwich were starting to dominate possession but without breaking through a resolute Middlesbrough side – and wasting the ball on the rare occasion that they did.
Tomlin almost doubled the visitors’ advantage as he saw a 25-yard strike clip the crossbar as they hit Norwich on the counter-attack – with Neil throwing on Lewis Grabban, Gary Hooper and Nathan Redmond.
The home side wanted a penalty on the 80-minute mark as Cameron Jerome’s cross hit the arm of the sliding George Friend – but Madley was unsighted and his assistant only flagged for a corner.
With so many forwards on, Norwich were leaving gaping holes at the back and Bamford should have wrapped the game up when played in by Tomlin – but the Chelsea loanee attempted to bend a shot with the outside of his boot and instead curled wide.
Grabban saw a scuffed shot deflect wide of Konstantopoulos’ post and Russell Martin’s drive was turned over by Gibson but, despite seven minutes of stoppage time, Norwich could not find a leveller.