If MK Dons are a team with nothing to play for in the final four weeks of the League 1 season, they're certainly not playing like one.
On what should have been a daunting afternoon at the home of the runaway League 1 leaders, Paul Ince's side produced a brave, spirited performance and came within a hair's breadth of recording a memorable victory. With a squad of just 15 players due to injury and suspension, the men from MK, ruled out of the play-off race by their manager this week,&nbsp;weathered an early storm at Carrow
Road before taking a 20th-minute lead through striker Aaron Wilbraham.
And having seen off the inevitable avalanche of pressure that came their way during a pulsating second-half, including a strong penalty shout for handball against Wilbraham, they looked set to hang on. But after Wilbraham was sent off for a second yellow card in the final minute of normal time, Chris Martin curled home the resulting free-kick to prevent the Canaries' third home defeat of the season.
Few could argue that the Dons have been better than their results have suggested in recent weeks and this was another indication of their promising progress under Ince. Depleted to the point of being three players short of a full compliment on the bench, their refusal to be intimidated in front of 25,000 fans was absolute. In defence in particular they were outstanding - Sean O'Hanlon and Darren Powell showing more familiarity than you might expect from two players that had never played in the same team.
Behind them, returning Frenchman Willy Gueret was inspired. Like so many others before them at Carrow
Road, they might have been blown away in the early stages as Norwich threatened to show their unquestionable promotion credentials. Gary Doherty, returning to the side following injury, fired the first warning with a well-placed header from Anthony McNamee's corner, but Mark Carrington was equally well-positioned to clear off the line.
Gueret tipped over another Doherty head on seven minutes and seven later, the Frenchman stuck out a leg to deny Grant Holt from a Russell Martin delivery. It was to be a frustrating afternoon for Holt, whose winner at Stockport last week took him beyond 30 goals for the season, but he failed to add to that total on 19 minutes as he diverted a shot over from Adam Drury's cross. Dons were beginning to settle though, passing the ball confidently in their diamond-shaped midfield, and with Mark Randall and Luke Chadwick starting to wield influence, Norwich's momentum stalled.
Aaron Wilbraham celebrates his opening goal. &nbsp; Randall had already rifled one shot just over by the time the Dons took the lead - Peter Leven violently whipping in a corner from the right that Russell Martin could only get a glancing touch on. Wilbraham did well to react to it from close-range and the man on the line had no chance. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say the Dons controlled the ensuing spell, frustrating the home supporters by starving the hosts of possession, without carving out the chances to really rattle their cage.
And so Norwich responded before the break - Holt drawing another fine save from Gueret with a driven shot before heading McNamee's resulting cross over, and Martin penalised for a foul on the Dons 'keeper that saw Darel Russell's goal-bound cross disallowed. The break brought no change in fortune for the off-colour Holt, who headed Simon Lappin's excellent cross wide on 56 minutes under pressure from Powell.
But that wasn't half as close as Dons skipper Dean Lewington came as he powered a header into the outstretched gloves of Declan Rudd from another Leven corner three minutes later. Holt drew further heroics from Gueret just after the hour-mark - the Norwich skipper's frustration showing as he attempted to punch a Russell cross goalwards shortly afterwards. He would have been tearing his hair out had Jermaine Easter doubled the advantage 18 minutes from time, but the Dons leading scorer was unable to beat Rudd after Chadwick had sent him through on the Norwich 'keeper.
Despite the chance passing them by, it was starting to look like the Dons' afternoon, particularly when Wilbraham survived huge shouts for a penalty after clearly handling Doherty's attempted pull-back inside the box. But the Dons' striker's luck ran out in the final minute when, having been booked for handball early in the second half, he caught jet-heeled substitute Oli Johnson as he raced towards the Dons box.
Martin had already had his sighter, having sent a similar free-kick straight into the Dons wall earlier in the second half. But he made no mistake this time as he curled around the wall and past the unsighted Gueret.
Six minutes of added time gave Norwich fans hope of an unlikely win, but that would have been truly hard on a Dons side that worked hard for a deserved point. It gives them plenty to build on at home to Oldham on Tuesday.
Norwich City (4-4-2): Rudd; R. Martin, Doherty, Nelson, Drury; McNamee (McNamee 66), Smith (Elliott 81), Russell, Lappin; Holt, C. Martin.
Subs not used: Steer, Gill, Hughes, Spillane, Rose. Goals: C. Martin 90 Booked: C. Martin, Holt.
MK Dons (4-1-2-1-2): Gueret; Woodards, O'Hanlon, Darren Powell, Lewington; Leven (Howell 76); Randall, Carrington; Chadwick (Davis 85); Easter, Wilbraham.
Subs not used: Searle, Chicksen.
Goals: Wilbraham 20
Booked: Randall, Leven, Wilbraham, O'Hanlon, Chadwick, Darren Powell, Davis, Carrington.
Sent off: Wilbraham 90
Referee: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire)