Thursday, January 3, 2013
Norwich City could hide behind a raft of excuses but they were simply not good enough to arrest their festive Premier League decline at West Ham.
Injuries in a key area of the field, combined with Bradley Johnson’s suspension, only served to raise genuine concerns over the depth of Chris Hughton’s first team squad on the opening day of the January transfer window.
Mark Clattenburg’s decision to penalise Ryan Bennett for apparently manhandling Winston Reid inside the opening two minutes proved a highly-contentious fault line, and Hughton was more than justified in compiling a mini dossier of potential calls that went against the Canaries as the match unfolded.
But while Robert Snodgrass’ first half free-kick grazed Jussi Jaaskelainen’s upright after Mark Noble sent Mark Bunn the wrong way from the penalty spot, few in Canary yellow would have had any complaints if the Hammers had been out of sight by the interval.
City were indebted to Bunn’s brilliant point blank stop to claw out Jack Collison’s goalbound hit and there was also a criminal lack of precision from Carlton Cole from close range box after the visitors had been cut open.
Norwich improved after the interval, pushing West Ham back in the closing stages as Sam Allardyce’s men appeared to favour a policy of containment, but Russell Martin’s 90th-minute strike – his third in four days – flattered the visitors at the finish.
City deserve credit for their refusal to succumb to a powerful West Ham outfit built around the imperious Noble, but for large swathes of the game they looked lifeless. The exertions of a gruelling festive fixture list appeared to have sapped the collective strength of a pool of players who, by and large, have had to shoulder the majority of the workload this campaign.
Harry Kane’s rapid elevation to the starting line-up was borne out of necessity, with Steve Morison (thigh) and Grant Holt (hamstring) ruled out. Martin’s versatility was again an invaluable commodity as the stand-in captain was deployed on the opposite flank in a bid to implement Hughton’s tactical masterplan. Jonny Howson replaced the suspended Johnson, but City’s sparse resources were underlined by a rare place on the substitutes’ bench for Korey Smith following his recent return from a League One loan spell at Yeovil.
Hughton’s lengthy pep talk with Ryan Bennett on the near touchline in the final moments before kick-off proved prophetic when the emergency full-back was thrust centre stage for the game’s key talking point. Clattenburg adjudged the England U21 player had grappled Reid inside the visiting penalty area barely two minutes into the action to gift Noble a chance he took with relish. Kane almost profited from indecision between Reid and James Tomkins shortly after, but Jaaskelainen had advanced to the edge of his area.
Cole’s temporary injury break, after he inadvertently caught Alex Tettey’s studs on his left knee, prompted Sebastien Bassong to try and seek an explanation from Clattenburg for his early spot-kick decision. The Cameroon international’s body language after the exchange suggested he was far from convinced at the high profile official’s reasoning behind the award.
Cole appeared to have recovered sufficiently to roll Bassong but his marker’s athleticism was enough to lessen the ferocity of the hit. Hughton’s men had established parity in terms of possession after the early setback but the Hammers’ work carried the greater potency. Matt Jarvis was inevitably offering a productive outlet down the left flank and Bassong needed to be alert to clear a ball arrowed towards Cole.
Noble’s handball offence presented Snodgrass with his customary set piece chance. The Scot in current form never fails to disappoint – a dipping 25-yard effort thudding against the base of Jaaskelainen’s left-hand post with the keeper well beaten.
Kane then failed to divert Anthony Pilkington’s snapshot on target as West Ham exhibited the first signs of hesitancy –- the ball clearly striking Reid’s left arm under pressure from Howson well inside the home box before it eventually spiralled towards Pilkington.
Bunn magnificently denied Collison with a point blank reaction stop midway through the opening period after the Welshman held off Ryan Bennett to stab goalwards from little more than seven yards. Respite proved temporary however as O’Brien slapped home on the angle following Bassong’s near post intervention which could only divert Noble’s cut back into the adventurous full-back’s path. The sight of Tettey on the ground after Cole had landed heavily on top of him during the build-up only served to compound the growing sense this was not going to be the Canaries’ day, but the Norwegian was passed fit to re-join the fray.
Bunn acrobatically tipped over Matt Taylor’s rising strike after the Canaries were caught out by a short corner routine before Noble and Guy Demel exposed Pilkington; Cole embarrassingly firing over from inside the six yard box. Norwich badly needed half-time to try and halt West Ham’s momentum, but Howson’s miscue inside his own box a minute prior to the interval typified City’s brittleness – although Demel volleyed wide at the far post.
Norwich were markedly brighter on the restart, and Hughton’s backroom team led vociferous penalty appeals when Kane sneaked the wrong side of Tomkins before hitting the ground.
Clattenburg, as he so often does, remained impassive. Pilkington was then flagged offside when the Canaries worked a clever opening which hinted at a revival.
Ricardo Vaz Te almost delivered a final blow in the 65th minute when he towered above Martin but managed to direct a header against the outside of Bunn’s far post. City’s prowess from set pieces looked the most profitable route back into the match, but Michael Turner was unable to rise above Reid in his attempt to direct Snodgrass’ corner past Jaaskelainen. Simeon Jackson and Elliott Bennett were introduced for the final quarter – albeit Hughton’s faith in his tried and trusted formula saw Kane and Hoolahan depart in a like-for-like switch. The onus was on Norwich as West Ham’s play in the closing stages visibly lacked the urgency of their initial offerings.
Snodgrass was emerging as an increasingly influential figure, but one raking shot from range was laced with a sense of growing desperation.
David Fox made his seasonal Premier League re-appearance for Howson in the final minutes, but a rising half volley was hardly the impact the cultured midfielder had in mind. It was left to Martin to reprise his goalscoring heroics from the weekend when he swivelled eight yards out to despatch Elliott Bennett’s inviting centre in the final act of normal time, but City were unable to threaten Jaaskelainen again.