SECOND-half goals from Ryan and Elliott Bennett earned Norwich City a precious three points in the fight for Premier League survival as they beat Reading 2-1.
The strikes came in quick succession soon after the break, and even though a Garath McCleary goal made for a nervous last quarter of the match, Chris Hughton’s side held on for the victory.
With Wigan Athletic losing at West Ham United, the win opens up a seven-point gap between City and the relegation places with just four games left of the campaign.
The result plunges Reading ever closer to what now seems an inevitable relegation to the Championship, but they put in a spirited performance on a bright spring afternoon at Carrow Road.
Norwich made two changes from last weekend’s 3-1 defeat at Arsenal, with Elliott Bennett starting in a 4-4-2 formation at the expense of Alexander Tettey, while Javier Garrido returned at left back in place of Steven Whittaker.
The visitors’ single change came as Nick Blackman started up front in place of Noel Hunt, while Ian Harte missed out completely through injury.
It was Bennett who had the game’s first shot on five minutes, drilling wide from 20 yards as an extraordinary atmosphere was generated in the early stages.
It was a bright start from the Canaries, and after Snodgrass broke down the right-hand side for the first time on 12 minutes, he produced a cross that Garrido fired at Alex McCarthy, who held at the second attempt.
They suffered a blow on 18 minutes, however, when Michael Turner limped off and had to be replaced by Ryan Bennett, who made his first Premier League appearance for three months.
Turner’s departure seemed to signal a swing in the momentum of the match, but although Reading started to get a hold on possession, Mark Bunn wasn’t initially tested.
A good opportunity fell to Pavel Pogrebnyak on 42 minutes, though, after Jobi McAnuff played a low ball into the area, but the towering Russian striker somehow manager to lift his shot over the bar.
City got going towards the end of the half and had their best opportunity when Robert Snodgrass won a 50/50 in the area, and Kei Kamara struck a sweet shot that was unfortunately straight at Alex McCarthy.
HALF-TIME: Norwich City 0-0 Reading
Kamara was in the action four minutes into the second-half too, sprinting into space down the left and hitting a fine shot that McCarthy managed to tip over the bar, and it was a sign of what to come as Norwich grabbed two goals in as many minutes.
It was from that corner that City then managed to take the lead – Snodgrass’ delivery was pinpoint, and after a scramble in the area, substitute Ryan Bennett smashed the ball high into the net much to delight and relief of the home crowd.
One became two what seemed almost immediately – Grant Holt challenged for a header and the ball fell to Elliott Bennett, and while McCarthy managed to get a foot to his shot, it looped up and nestled into the back of the net.
Norwich were suddenly rampant, and after Snodgrass went on a run and hit a brilliant drive that McCarthy managed to beat around his post, Kamara forced a superb save from the Royals’ young stopper with a header.
Reading got a foothold back in the match but they didn’t offer the same direct threat as in the first half until the 72nd minute, when they hauled themselves back into the game.
Winger Garath McCleary made the most of a vast area of space in the City half, took control of the ball from Danny Guthrie and rifled a left-footed shot that Mark Bunn got a glove to but couldn’t keep out.
The nature of the clash changed in an instant, but Norwich’s resilience in defence was holding them in good stead as Reading probed for an equaliser, even though McCleary nearly succeeded when he tried his luck with an overhead kick in the penalty area.
In stoppage time, Stephen Kelly rose at the back post to head wide, but City got themselves the ball deep in the visitors’ half and held on for a vital triumph.
FINAL SCORE: Norwich City 2-1 Reading
GOALS: Norwich City – Ryan Bennett (50), Elliott Bennett (52). Reading – Garath McCleary (72)
NORWICH CITY: Bunn; R Martin, Bassong, Turner (R Bennett 18), Garrido; Snodgrass (Pilkington 89), Howson, Johnson, E Bennett (Tettey 80); Kamara, Holt (c). Subs not used: Camp (GK), Jackson, Hoolahan, Tierney.
READING: McCarthy; Gunter, Mariappa, Morrison, Kelly; McCleary, Karacan, Guthrie, McAnuff (c); Blackman, Pogrebnyak. Subs not used: Taylor (GK), Pearce, Leigertwood, Le Fondre, Hunt, Cummings, Carrico.