March 12 2014 Latest news:
Paddy Davitt, Norwich City Writer
Monday, December 30, 2013
Norwich City were commendably brave and bold in defeat to the Premier League champions but frustration remains the dominant theme of their festive toil.
The marked contrast in their approach from the laboured Boxing Day loss to a Fulham side embarrassed at Hull merely served to underline the scale of a missed opportunity against the Cottagers. City were bright and inventive, defensively resolute until the game’s defining moment and penetrative in attack during the first period; the polar opposite of their wretched output just two days earlier at Carrow Road.
Therein lies the conundrum undermining Norwich’s third season back in the top flight. Consistency is proving an elusive panacea for Chris Hughton and his coaching staff and City will be dragged deeper into the mire if they can not deliver a viable solution. Norwich have reached the halfway point dangling three points outside the bottom three. Hughton is right to point out an equally slender margin is all that separates the Canaries from the fringes of the top 10, but his team seemed incapable of bridging that gap when opportunities for advancement have presented themselves during recent weeks.
Hughton’s squad battled manfully at Sunderland and for an hour against United they competed on level terms, but a slim festive haul requires another positive outcome at Crystal Palace on New Year’s Day to convince many City are not set for another fraught passage in their latest bid for safety.
Hughton’s decision to recall Wes Hoolahan and Russell Martin was the right one; both injected energy and an urgency that threatened to pay dividends in a first half where Norwich impressively switched from a disciplined defensive shape to a prolonged spell of creative intent that saw David De Gea far busier than his opposite number.
Those who were demanding Ricky van Wolfswinkel’s elevation to the starting line-up alongside Hooper effectively advocate the Irishman’s continued exclusion. Hoolahan is at his best knitting City’s midfield and frontline together in those congested pockets of the pitch. There was plenty of fresh evidence to illustrate his effectiveness in a vibrant opening period that may well have produced an individual goal but for Jonny Evans’ block.
Hughton’s decision to withdraw Hooper 10 minutes after Welbeck’s breakthrough triggered inevitable waves of disgruntlement, but in the context of City’s debilitating injury problems few can dispute his logic given Hooper appears the club’s only genuine goalscoring threat for the key battles ahead. Van Wolfswinkel is still on the comeback trail himself after his long spell on the sidelines with a toe injury but the Dutchman was purchased for his ability to plunder and his high class pedigree. Norwich need a return on their investment, even allowing for the inevitable difficulties in adjusting to the unique demands of the English game. City do not possess an abundance of resources, unlike United who dealt with the injury absences of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie at Carrow Road by introducing one of England’s most highly-rated striking prospects at the interval. That is the inequality clubs such as Norwich must accept as the price for continued Premier League membership.
Nor was Hughton culpable for the manner of United’s winner. Sebastien Bassong’s failure to deal with Welbeck at source and the unfortunate ricochet from Ryan Bennett against both him and Javier Hernandez left John Ruddy stranded. Welbeck’s finish was stylishly executed but it was rough justice given Norwich’s collective approach to a daunting task.
The scale of the celebrations that erupted in the vicinity of the away dugout underlined the hosts’ relative success in making United’s sixth consecutive victory a contest not a procession. Welbeck’s goal just before the hour mark appeared to visibly deflate Hughton’s side who failed to whip up anything approaching the ferocious intent of their very best incisions prior to the interval, when Martin had produced a masterclass of attacking full-back play on his first team recall.
Robert Snodgrass was also heavily involved on an afternoon where beneath the headline story one could witness positive signals.
Yet it was impossible to ignore the lingering stench from that Boxing Day defeat as United played out the time that remained with few genuine alarms. Fulham was the Carrow Road game over this festive period Norwich needed to win and on that measure they failed.
Palace, like Sunderland, is a game they can ill afford to lose as much for the knock-on effects to a direct rival as the residual benefits to a season which, pertinently, has reached a crossroads at the halfway mark.
Palace have beaten Aston Villa away and were one of the few to leave the Etihad this season without a major dent in their goal difference in recent days. Norwich will need to be at their most resolute when they travel to Selhurst Park. City’s poor festive return at this same stage 12 months ago sowed the seeds for a draining second half to the season which required victory in the final home game to secure survival. Norwich’s fans must detect familiar warning signs.