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Monday, September 3, 2012
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Norwich City’s propensity to upset the Premier League odds remains undiminished.
Predictably you suspect for those with little or no connection to the Canaries, this result will be painted as two points dropped for Tottenham.
Of more evidence Andre Villas-Boas has another job on his hands to embellish a managerial reputation forged in his homeland at Porto; yet tainted by his time at Chelsea.
Of a home crowd voluminously voicing their displeasure towards a group of high profile players who collectively lacked the quality and application they demand representing one of English football aristocrats.
The source of such frustrations is an imperceptible, possibly even subliminal, feeling of superiority; a latent arrogance that views Norwich City and their ilk as somehow inferior and as such an obstacle to dismissively brush aside.
Given the vast sums lavished by Tottenham’s hierarchy in the closing days and hours of the August transfer window and their loftier ambitions to chase Champions League qualification, games against teams like Norwich at home should be taken for granted.
That is no slight on Chris Hughton’s squad, that is footballing economics aligned to footballing history.
Except on that rationale, the Canaries should not even be on the same stages as the best the Premier League have to offer. They should be back in the Football League competing shoulder-to-shoulder with their East Anglian rivals. Professional football at the highest level still retains a meritocratic dimension that permits teams like Norwich and Swansea to survive and prosper against the rump of a division playing by the same financial rules of engagement.
Tottenham are not in that bracket, they are part of the elite; which makes Norwich’s latest successful excursion to White Hart Lane all the more noteworthy. When you can start a match with a new £15m signing in Mousa Dembélé on the bench alongside Emmanuel Adebayor you are indulging in fantasy football.
Dembélé was the chief architect behind a chilling opening day experience for Norwich at Craven Cottage. He was superb again on his Tottenham debut in a second half cameo that brought the first goal of the game. But this time around he was a support act – overshadowed for top billing by Norwich’s collective efforts; both in their residual reaction since the Fulham mauling and to fresh adversity inflicted by the cultured Belgian midfielder.
That City were not already in front on their body of first half work owed everything to Brad Friedel’s obduracy. The American proved a stubborn last line of defence; fuelled no doubt by the desire to remind deadline night signing Hugo Lloris even at the age of 41 he has no intention of going quietly. Friedel’s athleticism foiled Robert Snodgrass with a wrong-footing header from Anthony Pilkington’s inviting centre. Russell Martin had earlier seen a header cannon the crossbar for the second consecutive weekend. Dembele’s twisting strike which snaked beyond a partially unsighted John Ruddy after the interval was a cruel blow. All the more painful following the impressive Jonny Howson’s momentary dalliance just outside his own penalty area that allowed Dembélé to pounce on the midfielder’s blind side.
Set against Fulham, set against QPR at home where City had failed to similarly convert their chances, and their first-half dominance at the Lane you feared brittle confidence may have been fatally damaged. Dembélé’s fine finish was like another after-shock, another tremor emanating from an epicentre located just a few miles south-west by the Thames.
What stung about Fulham was not the margin of defeat, but the manner of the reverse. So out of keeping with what had gone before in the club’s recent history. To pin it on the managerial changing-of-the-guard over the summer was a convenient label that disguised the fact Chris Hughton’s line up had included nine of his predecessor’s team.
Hughton faced the first real test of his Carrow Road tenure. It will not be the last, but City’s response in the last two games is a testament to their experienced manager and his backroom staff.
The outward persona remained measured, the dissection of that defeat calm, the reaction since emphatic. The fruits of Hughton’s labours in the transfer market are already starting to blossom.
Sebastien Bassong’s inclusion alongside a rejuvenated Leon Barnett has infused City’s backline with the raw physicality and athleticism that is a pre-requisite for duelling against the best marksmen in the business. Jermain Defoe and Adebayor flirted around the fringes of this contest, but both were peripheral figures. Martin on one flank dovetailed with the unflappably assured Javier Garrido to largely subdue Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale. Players of such frightening quality will always showcase flashes of intent, but City’s full-backs nullified the twin threats for the most part.
Garrido was swift to dissect Lennon’s ability to dart on his outside after being slipped in the early stages. The Spaniard would not have played for clubs like Manchester City or Lazio without having the technical toolkit to solve real-time challenges. By midway through the opening period, Lennon and Bale had switched wings in a bid to leave a greater imprint on a game Norwich’s midfield were dominating.
Bradley Johnson and Howson blunted Tottenham’s forays through the middle and sprung Norwich’s counters down the flanks. Johnson looked back to the player who had previously been mentioned in England circles 12 months ago before fading into the background over the second half of the last campaign. The former Arsenal trainee appeared to relish the freedom to roam the wide open spaces. Disciplined in defence, aggressive in his attacking endeavour. Even Friedel was powerless to stop a ferocious first time hit on his left foot that veered a yard over the bar after Jan Vertonghen’s partial headed clearance had enticed the midfielder forward. One sharp trigger movement set Pilkington away shortly afterwards to pick out Snodgrass who was denied expertly by Friedel.
The intensity and the collective desire singularly lacking at Fulham was here in abundance. Yes, Tottenham struggled to construct meaningful forays of their own around John Ruddy’s goal, but maybe, just maybe, that owed more to City’s success in their defensive shape and propensity to counter-attack swiftly.
Villas-Boas sent Dembele to warm up barely 30 minutes into the match. You could take it as a visual sign of the Portuguese manager’s growing dissatisfaction.
Dembélé’s arrival at the interval offered Tottenham guile and craft. Gylfi Sigurdsson tested Ruddy with a half-volley. Bale moved through the gears menacingly but slashed over. Defoe struck a sturdy Norwich wall after Bassong’s error of judgement on the edge of his own penalty area. Friedel remained vigilant. Pilkington’s swivelling strike was parried low to the ground after City had escaped a suffocating spell of home possession until Dembélé’s decisive thrust arrowed past Ruddy despite Howson’s valiant attempt to recover his initial error.
It was no more than the Tottenham supporters or those outside Norfolk perhaps would have expected. Probably the bare minimum. Normal order had been restored; Norwich’s impudent uprising quelled.
Except this City vintage are made of stern stuff. Benoit Assou-Ekotto was afforded the benefit of any doubt clouding Mark Halsey’s mind when he indulged in a spot of grappling with Steve Morison inside the Tottenham area.
City flowed forward again. Pilkington’s cross from the right found five black shirts loitering with intent in the opposition box.
Martin and Holt’s head tennis diverted the ball into Snodgrass’ path, who met it with the sweetest piece of timing to guide the ball beyond the faultless Friedel. The celebrations in front of the away end were matched by those in the vicinity of Hughton’s technical area.
Tom Huddlestone’s straight red for a mistimed sliding challenge on Howson threatened to tip the balance in the closing minutes.
Morison’s bustling run and Holt’s flick teed up Johnson, but Friedel was his equal. Just like Norwich were Tottenham’s on a day that might have far-reaching ramifications for City’s Premier League prospects.