Thursday, January 3, 2013
So the 12 points of Christmas totally eluded Norwich City after their trip to West Ham United ended in a fourth successive Premier League defeat.
A season that began with the Canaries taking just three points from the first seven league fixtures and was then thrillingly and unexpectedly revived by a 10-match unbeaten run, which included six victories, is once again veering into difficulty after Chris Hughton’s team came off worse of the two depleted sides meeting in the opening match of 2013 at Upton Park.
Yesterday’s reverse was perhaps the most disappointing of the four they have suffered in the space of 11 days, not just because the previous three opponents were all above City in the table – a trio that included both last season’s European and English champions – while West Ham were below them at kick-off, but also because they failed for long periods to match the standards they had maintained for much of the previous three months.
It was also notable for another self-satisfied performance by referee Mark Clattenburg, who may have been right in his decision to award the Hammers a penalty in the second minute of play, but seemed a bit too eager to grab the spotlight early on. He then failed to spot a clear handball in the Hammers’ penalty area midway through the first half, and either did not see or ignored the fact that City’s Alex Tettey was flattened by the considerable weight of Hammers striker Carlton Cole in the build-up to their second goal.
It would be unwise, though, to dismiss the latest defeat merely as the result of refereeing decisions that went against the Canaries.
True, they continue to miss John Ruddy, Steven Whittaker and a fit Grant Holt and yesterday they were without the suspended Bradley Johnson, but regardless of the absentees, they were, by Hughton’s admission, not good enough in the first half and though they enjoyed much more possession after the break, it was only the greater urgency shown in the final 15 minutes that eventually succeeded in unsettling the Hammers.
Since their Wembley hopes were ended by Aston Villa, of all people, three weeks ago, City’s campaign has come off the rails somewhat with just one Premier League victory over Wigan to lighten the mood. In the circumstances, they may well be glad of an 11-day break before the next league game at home to Newcastle.
In addition to yesterday’s enforced changes, Ryan Bennett was preferred to Javier Garrido in defence in an attempt to provide more height in defending set- pieces in the absence of Holt, Johnson and Steve Morison.
However, the Canaries were rocked on their heels after less than three minutes when the recalled Bennett was adjudged to have held down Winston Reid as Guy Demel lobbed the ball into the penalty area – and Hammers skipper Mark Noble scored confidently from the spot.
City were unlucky not to equalise on 20 minutes when Noble was penalised for hand-ball and Robert Snodgrass struck a curling free-kick against the post, and moments later, Reid appeared to get away with a clear handball offence in the West Ham area.
Goalkeeper Mark Bunn then denied Jack Collison with a fine save but, with 27 minutes gone, the Hammers stretched their lead, again with a whiff of controversy.
As Tettey lay prone on the turf after Cole landed on top of him, play was allowed to continue. Joey O’Brien and Noble combined on the left side of the Norwich penalty area, Sébastien Bassong poked the ball away from Noble’s cross but only to O’Brien, who squeezed a shot past Bunn.
Matthew Taylor, Cole and Ricardo Vaz Te might have extended West Ham’s lead before half-time, when disenchanted City boss Hughton had words with match official Clattenburg as the teams left the field.
City were again appealing in vain for a penalty after the break as Harry Kane went down under challenge from James Tomkins as he pursued a Wes Hoolahan pass, but it seemed a trifle optimistic, and it was the Hammers who could have made the game safe on 64 minutes. From a cross from the left by Taylor, Vaz Te rose above Russell Martin but headed against the post with Bunn beaten.
His misfortune meant the closing stages were more anxious for the hosts than they needed to be. The ever-willing Snodgrass tried to inspire City and struck a low drive that ’keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen dived to keep out, though it lacked the power to really trouble him.
But after three changes from the bench, there was some consolation for the Canaries in the final minute when Russell Martin reduced the arrears by volleying in from substitute Elliott Bennett’s cross, his third goal in two games.
It was, alas, too little, too late as an unusually fruitless festive season for City came to an end.