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Monday, November 26, 2012
Some points in the Premier League feel bigger than others. Norwich’s late reward at Goodison Park was positively epic.
Not just in the statistical sense; as one more notch on the unbeaten run or one point nearer the stated objective of top flight survival. Not just in reaffirming the stubborn, brave characteristics self-evident within Chris Hughton’s squad. Not just in the nature of City’s 90th-minute equaliser, when the imperious Sebastien Bassong ambled forward more in hope than expectation one suspected as Javier Garrido prepared to deliver a deep free-kick.
Such fresh evidence of Norwich’s ability to resist was hardly revelatory to either Hughton or City’s fan base. It was the levels of obduracy that set Norwich’s latest efforts on Merseyside apart from the previous games on this rejuvenative recent Premier League surge.
City had been second best overall perhaps for the first time since that pummelling at Chelsea in early October which triggered a sharp upturn in fortunes. Maybe not in the volume of clear-cut chances over the entire piece – in that respect Hughton was correct in his post-match reflections when he contrasted the similar workloads of the respective keepers – but in their control of the game.
Norwich had to dig in, to cede territory and possession for prolonged spells against the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United at Carrow Road as part of a successful gameplan designed to suffocate and frustrate. But they had also been the equal of both Champions League qualifiers in the potency of their attacking counter thrusts.
Against Stoke and Reading, City matched the physical endeavours of less refined rivals without ever quite imposing themselves as emphatically as they had done at Villa Park on the road. Yet here against the Toffees in the opening period they were a long way short of that benchmark. Everton were superior both in creative intent and earthy application. David Moyes’ men swarmed and pressed higher up the pitch from the opening minute and it was only the hosts’ relative profligacy whenever they threatened in and around Norwich’s penalty area, allied to John Ruddy’s assurance back on familiar territory, that ensured City went in at the break trailing by just Steven Naismith’s opener. A goal so out of kilter with the resolute, disciplined nature of their efforts since Stamford Bridge it perfectly illustrated the Canaries’ sluggishness.
Steven Whittaker paid a heavy price for momentary hesitation. Thomas Hitzlsperger’s flighted ball in behind presented the Scot with a delicate conundrum – cut the ball out at source or deny Bryan Oviedo time and space to produce a cross. Whittaker did neither, and Oviedo showed admirable presence of mind and composure to fashion a cross anticipated quickest by Naismith who slammed into the roof of Ruddy’s net.
Steven Pienaar delivered a masterclass in intelligent movement and sure-footed technique matched by England international Leon Osman. Everton’s midfield dominated their City adversaries in a way Manchester United were never remotely able to the previous weekend. Leighton Baines surged forward with impunity. Ruddy beat away one left-footed hit and deserved his slice of fortune when Osman could only direct the follow-up on to the roof of Norwich’s net. Pienaar’s sublime mid-air flick was controlled by Osman on the edge of City’s penalty area, but the finish failed to match the ambitious intent.
Norwich’s lifelessness was in stark contrast to Everton’s vibrancy. Grant Holt and Wes Hoolahan were isolated figures in a sea of blue. Sylvain Distin looked keener than Andre Santos to exchange shirts with his direct counterpart as he swarmed over Holt. There was a worrying parallel with City’s last staccato away day at Reading, when an inability to establish that attacking bridgehead in the opposition half for sustained periods placed undue stress on the men in front of Ruddy. Bassong’s miscued close-range header from Robert Snodgrass’ corner was the sum total of genuine anxiety for Tim Howard prior to the interval.
Norwich emerged from the tunnel unchanged in terms of personnel, but, it was swiftly apparent, with a different mindset. Howard batted away Anthony Pilkington’s goalbound free kick before the American’s anticipation beat Holt in a race to Whittaker’s teasing long pass.
John Heitinga scrambled Snodgrass’ scuffed angled right-footer off his goalline after Hoolahan and Holt combined for their first meaningful impression on a game spent largely on the periphery. City’s collective response appeared to dent Everton’s psyche. Pienaar’s influence subsided. The home crowd’s angst became ever-more audible with each misplaced pass and disruption to the Toffees’ earlier fluency.
Baines slalomed past Whittaker and Snodgrass after Pilkington’s errant inside pass went astray, but Ruddy dived full length to parry the left-back’s powerful strike. It was the big man’s final contribution. Ruddy had already abdicated goal-kicking duties minutes earlier but another forced clearance in open play was the final stress test on a right thigh problem. It was hard not to view the sight of Ruddy hobbling to the sidelines as a metaphor for Norwich’s afternoon of struggle. Everton by stealth re-established a modicum of control.
Pilkington rose well above Phil Jagielka to meet Whittaker’s cross, but Howard gathered at the second attempt. It felt like a final hurrah.
The People’s club had designated Norwich’s Premier League visit as a day to celebrate all things ‘retro’. From the match-day programme recalling the Canaries’ Division One visit to Everton back in April 1974, complete with pen pictures of John Bond’s side, to the traditional reading of the half-time scores from around the country, to the re-appearance of a former stadium announcer, it was meant as a homage to the past. Norwich were almost compelled to play their part with a slice of late drama that has been their stock-in-trade over these past few seasons of over-achievement. Baines was adjudged to have hauled down Steve Morison tight to the right-hand touchline with just seconds remaining in normal time. A prowling Moyes voiced his displeasure. Garrido delivered deep, Bassong leapt between a hesitant Heitinga and Howard to power a header down and against the underside of the bar. Holt closed in to settle any debate, but Bassong had already surged towards the away end in celebration. Hughton’s men had proved their point again. The competitive spirit is as strong as ever.