Alex Neil is forced to digest half-measures at Norwich City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Alex Neil's biggest asset right now is the fact he is not weighed down with the baggage Norwich City carry from stilted Championship progress.
The Canaries' new boss can watch all the archive footage he wants, collect all the anecdotal evidence he requires from those inside the dressing room and elsewhere, but none of that will be as beneficial as his first 90 minutes patrolling the Carrow Road touchline.
Neil will have salivated and winced in equal measure as he observed Norwich's split personality at first-hand; an experience that reaffirmed why a squad with all the ability needed to extricate itself from the second tier of English football continues to favour the hazardous path to promotion.
City were brutally efficient in despatching Huddersfield and Millwall in the dying embers of Neil Adams' reign over the festive period. Bournemouth was a stirring response to adversity, given the circumstances that parachuted Neil from his perch in the directors' box to the dugout.
But for every positive, Norwich seem compelled to offer a negative. What set this game apart perhaps from any other previously this season was the marked nature of the clash between such character traits. The by-product was another tense finale to a game which at half-time had descended into a routine procession.
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For all Norwich's calculated precision which deservedly brought three goals, for John Ruddy's excellent penalty save to deny Peter Whittingham after the most generous of concessions when Adam Le Fondre found gravity was unable to support him as he hurdled Carlos Cuellar, for all the voluminous support from an appreciative home crowd at the interval, the abiding images will be negative.
The fraught final moments, the sense of desperation, the almost dejected look on the features of many Norwich players who trooped wearily away when the torture had mercifully ended formed the abiding narrative. Neil was right, when the dust settled Norwich had taken another step closer the only goal by which they should be judged, but it was not the emphatic statement of intent it appeared destined after an hour.
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Cardiff were functional and one-dimensional. Neil had pinpointed exactly the aerial threat before kick-off yet the Canaries were punished for two lapses of concentration. Just like against Reading at Carrow Road before Christmas or Rotherham and Charlton even further back.
The Canaries' top brass opted for a new conductor but the same orchestra is still capable of playing out of tune. Neil needs much more time to implement his methods after a first hour that was a testament to his initial impact. Norwich looked cohesive, structured and immeasurably better-equipped than a Cardiff side who, for all Norwich's residual issues, have laboured to a far greater degree this season since accompanying the Canaries out of the Premier League.
Kyle Lafferty never exudes a lack of self-confidence but his maiden strike on a rare start will be a huge boost to the Northern Irishman. It was a high class finish worthy of such landmark status. Cameron Jerome and Gary Hooper remain a potent double act, with Hooper again relishing a more withdrawn role and the space afforded by Jerome's willingness to stretch the Bluebirds' backline.
Nathan Redmond was a productive outlet on the right. One almost felt a degree of sympathy towards Scott Malone as the Cardiff left-back was continually isolated and frequently reversed into his own penalty area by the England Under-21 starlet.
Norwich going forward will score goals against any team in the Championship but collectively without the ball they still exhibit frailties and a worrying lack of consistency in key passages of play.
Russell Slade's men bludgeoned their way back into this game but they were aided by individual lapses that left Ruddy exposed twice inside three second-half minutes.
It is easy to castigate Martin Olsson for allowing Alex Revell to escape his attentions at the far post, but there was no pressure on the initial cross from Whittingham on the opposite flank after clever movement lost Redmond and Martin. Kadeem Harris' composed take just minutes later owed much to weakness in Norwich's central defence.
Neil, his players and the majority inside Carrow Road know such charity must be eradicated when they go up against direct promotion rivals in the coming weeks.
Those above them continue to keep the Canaries on the periphery of the top six. That will change should Neil's squad overcome Brentford this coming weekend.
In hindsight an early-season 3-0 away league win against the Bees, alongside derby success, was the high point of Adams' tenure. Norwich were magnificently resolute at Griffin Park with Ruddy an impenetrable barrier before Jerome and his pals cut loose in the second period.
It was one of the few complete performances against a fully-committed foe the Canaries have served up in a campaign which is rapidly reaching the defining point. They will need another at Carrow Road on Saturday and plenty more before May.