Monday, December 24, 2012
It seemed a fairly innocuous question given your bog-standard – if there is such a thing – Premier League club has a fairly bog-standard mantra for success.
First you get to 40 points, and you try to do it as quickly as possible. The sooner you do it, the longer you have to set sights higher.
Even West Brom striker Shane Long was at it before Saturday’s clash at The Hawthorns – Albion’s winless run of four prompting a renewal of the 40-point aim ahead of those previously mentioned European hopes.
But Baggies boss Steve Clarke sharpened his eyes at the suggestion his side, along with Norwich, would have started the season aiming for survival.
He backed up the point too. Why should a team that finished 11th and then 10th in their two seasons since returning to the top flight be preoccupied with finishing 17th?
Of course, the Canaries are a year behind Albion in their Premier League development – but having closed last term in 12th, on Saturday’s evidence there is no reason to feel Norwich should not follow Clarke’s lead.
Defeat laid to rest that fun Barcelona statistic we’ve all heard too much in the last fortnight, and a Premier League record run that City should be really proud of.
But the real pleasure should be found in the Canaries’ consistency of performance, because defeat at The Hawthorns rested on the finest of margins. Indeed, perhaps it was only the law of averages that prevented Chris Hughton’s side from making it 11 games without tasting defeat.
Certainly it was rare to see them win so many set-piece headers – only to watch them fly off target.
The reality of Saturday was an excellent first-half performance that exuded the confidence on that ball and movement City showed at Swansea. Albion had their chances before the break but Norwich enjoyed the half; their 23rd minute lead deserved as Robert Snodgrass was bundled over by Peter Odemwingie. The winger got up and sent a now-trademark left-footed free-kick floating over the wall and into the top-left corner of Ben Foster’s net.
The keeper, making his return from injury, shook his head in annoyance at getting two hands to Snodgrass’ effort – with the ball travelling over his wall, he was possibly being harsh on himself.
But the afternoon’s work did show off Snodgrass’ blossoming role for City – chief set-piece supplier, defensive cover, outlet ball on the break and that canny knack of winning a free-kick. We now all know why Norwich spent so long chasing his signature.
City kept the ball as well as they have done all season in that first period, but West Brom have undoubted quality – the case in point being Romelu Lukaku. A 19-year-old signed by Chelsea for £18m, who had barely played for the Blues before being loaned for the season to Albion.
His ability to drift into the space between Sébastien Bassong and Javier Garrido earned him a sight of Mark Bunn’s goal in the first half the City keeper did well to hold. It also bought him Albion’s 82nd minute winner, the muscular striker finding his only obstacle between the superb Goran Popov’s deep centre and Bunn’s goal being a compact Spanish full-back jumping in hope rather than expectation.
By this point Albion were both willing and desperate. Clarke was readying the kitchen sink in sending Long into the fray. That desire for victory from the hosts ended up a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Where Norwich’s frustration will fester is the equaliser that didn’t so much turn the game in Albion’s favour, as give them less work to do after the break. City had been warned, Gareth McAuley sliding in on Chris Brunt’s corner from a few yards – only for Bunn to be in the right place to clear.
Two minutes from the interval, it was a different story. Brunt’s corner saw Bunn, grappling with Odemwingie, only able to tip Jonas Olsson’s header on to his crossbar. Zoltan Gera bundled home, The Hawthorns woke from its slumber. Suggestions of a foul on Bunn were optimistic. The hunch Albion’s corner should have been a City goal-kick was proven true as Alex Tettey and Gera’s aerial challenge brought a clash of heads – but only the Baggies man headed the ball.
Whether such goals are a symptom of John Ruddy’s continued injury absence is a discussion with time on its side. Fans debating Steve Morison can file that one in the same tray.
The Wales international has rarely been a direct replacement for Grant Holt and the job he does. At The Hawthorns it showed.
Health and fitness will be the Christmas wishes all City fans should forward to their club. The boss doesn’t want to be covering any more holes in his first XI.
But thanks to a run that began in mid-October and took City from 19th and a tally of three points, the Canaries still not only reflect on narrowly missing out on an 11th game unbeaten.
They should also listen to Steve Clarke’s high hopes and think, ‘We can do that’.