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Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Whatever happened to second-season syndrome?
It’ll be hard to remember too much about what happened against Sunderland. You almost suspected that we might not be the first match to be shown on MOTD2, but never mind that, it’s another three points.
We’re now seven clear of the bottom three, and actually as close to fifth-placed West Brom as the relegation zone.
Two months ago if you’d said that at any point this season we’d be level on points with Liverpool and only two behind Arsenal you’d have been greeted with only slightly less laughter than had you suggested that Ipswich might yet make the play-offs. The only team with a better unbeaten run than us is Manchester City.
And we’re on the same points total as we were a year ago, when this season was supposed to be all about staying up by grinding out results.
It wasn’t great on Sunday – unlike against Arsenal and Manchester United we were really hanging on at the end, having to desperately clear our lines and being thankful for some wasteful opposition finishing.
But the only thing that really matters now is the result. We’re effectively halfway towards our survival target.
Beat Wigan, because it’s hard to see our other four fixtures producing much in the way of guaranteed points, and we will enter 2013 in very good shape indeed.
Such was the nature of Sunday’s second half that we didn’t really deserve to win. But then we should have beaten QPR, so we’re now probably where we should be.
And we’re 12th in the table knowing we can play an awful lot better than we did in the second half against Sunderland.
The opening 45 minutes were outstanding.
We made an early breakthrough, making Sunderland look as woeful as Aston Villa on the final day of last season.
Their substitutes, stood still on the touchline and blocking the view of people sitting at the front of the City Stand, showed far more mobility than their ‘playing’ colleagues. Trailing 1-0 is never a daunting prospect, as the Canaries know from their travels already this season, but when the second, well-worked goal went in it looked like a matter of how many.
Had we scored again before half-time it surely would have been.
But Craig Gardner’s strike and a few well-chosen Martin O’Neill words at half-time made Sunderland look a different prospect after the break.
More of a factor, though, was that City failed to continue their effective passing display of the first half, and Sunderland started getting a grip on the game.
I hate to say it as well, but Connor “I want to go back there and hurt them” Wickham proved much more of a threat than Steven Fletcher.
Somehow, though, we held out. It didn’t matter how, but we showed enormous resilience and determination, the qualities which have transformed our season over the last couple of months.
With each passing game we start to look that little bit more sure of our surroundings and hard to beat. It won’t go on forever, but as long as we keep winning the games that matter like Sunday’s we can then sit back and watch with interest this coming weekend’s key fixtures –- Southampton v Reading and Wigan v QPR – with interest rather than concern.
• Another area in which there’s no sign of second-season syndrome is the level of away support. A midweek turn-out of 1,912 at Southampton is little short of staggering.
Three years ago we were getting barely half that for a first-ever league visit to Yeovil; whereas City have played at St Mary’s enough times already.
But still enough supporters were prepared to make a huge effort to get down to Hampshire to see another step towards survival.
• AT LAST, AN FA CUP TIE THAT SETS THE PULSES RACING
So, Peterborough, then.
It makes a change to get an intriguing third-round FA Cup tie – I think, for me, the last one was when we went to Tamworth in 2007.
Can’t say I was expecting a repeat of that one. When Crystal Palace were drawn at home early on I fully expected to be drawn against them – after all, a season without a game at Selhurst Park? That’s unthinkable.
And then Aston Villa came and went, and steadily there didn’t seem much left from which to choose, until all of a sudden we got picked out for tie number 22.
Personally, I think it’s a great tie, not least because it’ll give me the chance to tick off Norwich at Peterborough, having missed their only previous competitive visit to London Road in 1986.
And I surely won’t be alone in thinking along those lines.
Judging from The Football League Show at the weekend Peterborough still haven’t started work on that long-awaited ground redevelopment, as there were supporters behind both goals.
Does that mean that London Road will be set for its biggest occasion since last season’s visit of West Ham, when more than 5,000 travelling fans swelled the attendance to over 13,000? Because if City can take 1,912 to an – let’s be honest here – unattractive midweek league game at Southampton there will surely be masses who want to go to Peterborough next month.
In other years this game might have been a live-broadcast possibility, but with some all-Premier league pairings as well as more interesting trips for Everton, Liverpool and Reading I can’t really see it.
The other stand-out feature about this draw is that it should be the first time City fans will stand on terraces – remember them? – at a competitive game since going to Bristol Rovers in May 2010.
Get past Aston Villa next week and we would also have a Capital One Cup semi-final first leg to look forward to the following midweek as well.
Terracing? Cup runs? It’s almost like the last two decades in Norwich simply didn’t happen.
• One final thought about the FA Cup draw, and in particular the meeting of Aston Villa and Ipswich.
It’s a tie I’d like to see both teams lose.
• MESSAGE FOR SKY – THIS REALLY IS THE LIMIT
So, have Sky finally got the message then?
Will our visit to the Stadium of Light actually kick off at 3pm on Saturday, March 16 rather than be put back for a fifth straight live transmission of this fixture.
You almost wonder if Sky are now working on a basis of “sooner or later these teams will serve up a cracker” because I find it hard to believe that most of our meetings with Sunderland have been of the slightest interest to the wider world outside East Anglia and the North-East.
Now, if they’d chosen this coming weekend’s fixture to show… well, I could understand that a bit more.
While the Canaries and Swansea represent the new, unfashionable face of the Premier League, recent experience suggests that whatever else might occur, it won’t be dull, or as one-sided as Sunday’s first half.
It might also demonstrate the biggest threat to our hopes for Capital One Cup glory – always assuming, of course, that we don’t slip up against Aston Villa in eight days’ time.
Yes, I know that Arsenal and Chelsea might still stand between us and at least an appearance at Wembley, but do they really offer an insurmountable challenge? Both wobbling a bit at the moment and more concerned with this season’s Champions League and making sure they finish in the top four than any domestic silverware.
No, I would say that Swansea are the side I would not want to be paired with in a semi-final draw. But that’s running before we can walk; first we have to dispose of Aston Villa.
It’s bizarre that two visits to Swansea in the same calendar year will both be followed by potentially season-shaping home cup ties.
Our tactical success in South Wales last season was little short of brilliant, but then a certain person allowed himself to focus more on Manchester United than beating Leicester to reach a rare FA Cup quarter-final. Result? Our momentum came to a crashing halt and we only periodically hit the heights again as the season neared its end. Whatever happens at the Liberty Stadium this weekend – and it wouldn’t come as a bolt from the blue if Swansea finally manage to get one over us – we have to make sure that we don’t then let things slip again, and take Aston Villa a whole lot more seriously than we did Leicester.