There was no hat-trick for Liverpool's Luis Suarez this time, but he made it seven goals in three games against Norwich with another deadly piece of finishing. Picture: Dave Rawcliffe / Focus Images

Norwich City are better than this - now prove it

Monday, January 21, 2013
10.41 AM

Once the anger receded, this fresh Liverpool mauling offered irrefutable proof that City’s promising Premier League season has stalled.

A defeat at Anfield against a rejuvenated Reds by itself should be no cause for introspective. It was the manner of the surrender that must not be allowed to linger or taint the crucial battles ahead. For that is where we are now. Norwich’s festive stumble has become a painful fall from the consistent seam of form that underpinned a club-record Premier League unbeaten run.

Chris Hughton’s squad have no option but to roll up their collective sleeves, because with every passing week those clubs below them range ever closer in the rear view mirror.

Liverpool were excellent on the day after Jordan Henderson magnificently found a way to puncture the stirrings of another gameplan rooted in stubborn defiance. Wes Hoolahan kept in reserve and Sebastien Bassong on the sidelines spoke volumes for where the City manager placed this particular test in the batting order. But Hughton and his coaching staff would not have wanted to sift through the collateral damage of a performance every bit as poor as the lowest points of his tenure.

The similarities with Fulham were frightening. Not in the scoreline and the measure of the beating, but in the total disarray amongst the ranks as Liverpool poured forward with impunity. The Canaries, it is no exaggeration to state given the way this game unravelled, were the equal of their illustrious hosts in that opening 25 minute spell. Ryan Bennett will know better than anyone he should have buried Robert Snodgrass’ inviting free kick with Brad Jones to beat six yards out in front of the Kop.

But the brittleness and the apparent willingness to accept their fate was classic Craven Cottage – were it not for the considerable drop in temperature from that opening day sweatbox down by the Thames.

Brendan Rodgers spoke afterwards about the leadership qualities of the recalled Jamie Carragher at the heart of the home defence. Norwich had no-one of his stature capable of corralling the troops into much stiffer resistance. Once Luis Suarez had opened his account for the afternoon to double Liverpool’s lead before the interval, City were in damage limitation mode. A task they failed miserably to accomplish in the second period when the former ‘Kings of Europe’ mercifully declared at five.

The sense of frustration surely felt by those watching the carnage in the away end and those performing in their name was the certain knowledge Norwich are so much better than the paltry measures they served up at Anfield. Use Arsenal and Manchester United at home or Everton and Swansea away as submissions for the defence. In all those four Premier League encounters, the Canaries survived a serious examination of their defensive qualities. To lurch again to the days of Fulham or Chelsea must worry Hughton. Even with key performers like John Ruddy and Bassong absent, a set of players well into their second season at this rarefied level should not be embarrassed in quite such graphic fashion.

Hughton can do nothing about basic individual errors. That is for those he trusted to carry out his instructions – an honest group of players who would readily admit they short-changed those 1,800 souls who braved the snow and ice. But Hughton’s apparent inflexibility when the game was clearly careering away from the visitors is a charge he did have to answer. It was a mark of the man he met the post-match questions head on. To engage Liverpool on their terms, to attack like-for-like and create even more acres for the Reds to exploit was a strategy with little scope for success.

Whether you chose to accept it or not, Liverpool have better attacking players. And they can produce the price tags to prove it. Suarez has waged a one-man crusade against the green and yellow hordes ever since he set foot on these shores.

The Uruguayan brings with him plenty of baggage but, along with Robin van Persie, he has been the class act to this stage of the Premier League season. That Suarez has more chance of being granted the freedom of Manchester than a coronation as player-of-the-year is a reflection of his toxic impact on the English game outside his Merseyside powerbase.

In Daniel Sturridge, Rodgers has astutely added a foil every bit as cunning. The potential for such a partnership to blossom must appeal hugely to those who unite behind the Northern Irishman’s cause.

Norwich’s defence will not be the last this season mesmerized by a speed of thought and intelligent movement perhaps only Manchester’s bitter title rivals could justifiably claim to match in their resources.

But for all the sound logic it is simply not enough for Hughton or his players to accept their fate; to collapse so meekly in the face of a superior opponent. If the antidote to containment was more containment, Liverpool’s second-half onslaught underlined its limitations. The Premier League is an unforgiving environment. Norwich’s pre-festive surge spawned a counter-attacking strategy robust enough to beat the best. Hughton honed a profitable way forward from the wreck of heavy defeats to Liverpool at Carrow Road and Chelsea on the road. But City’s rivals are now finding multiple solutions to unpick the stitching around their style of play. Whether it was Newcastle’s decision to match Norwich at their own game in a drab stalemate last time out at home or Liverpool’s thirst for fluid football played by gifted footballers.

City must seek revisions to the formula. Norwich have the players and the management to comfortably secure their passage for a second season, but Liverpool suggested they need to build again on the sound fundamentals that carried them clear of the lower reaches before Christmas.

Fresh blood is one option, and Norwich have demonstrated in recent days they aim to be active participants in the remaining weeks of this transfer market. But those already here need to raise their collective game again.

City’s squad has talent and character in abundance. Do not let anyone convince you otherwise. Adversity is nothing new to a core of players who owe their elevated status and that of their club to a burning desire never to accept their fate in the lower leagues. Days like Liverpool prove how far Norwich have come. But displays like Liverpool prove how far they still have to go.