Arsenal was not Norwich City’s day of reckoning in the Premier League
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City find themselves in a depressingly familiar rut. Where genuine cause for optimism is being crushed by the brutal reality of Premier League life.
The Canaries did plenty right yet again in heavy defeat to an Arsenal squad which, on the fresh compelling evidence inflicted on Chris Hughton's side, could well prove to be the club to overhaul in this season's title race.
But just like Chelsea prior to the international break there was more than an echo of self-inflicted blows to help ease one of the top flight's best over the finishing line.
That feeling Arsenal were simply going through the motions, almost dismissively toying with their prey after Mesut Ozil had risen majestically above Russell Martin to despatch Olivier Giroud's centre to double the hosts' lead just before the hour mark, was replaced by a palpable sense of unease swirling around the Emirates when Jonny Howson pounced.
In truth, Norwich had been in the ascendancy since the closing stages of the opening period as the sheer force of Leroy Fer's personality seemed the catalyst driving the Canaries forward after shedding any last vestiges of inferiority in the face of mesmeric patterns weaved by Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla.
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Wojciech Szczesny denied Fer from long range with a deceiving strike that dipped just in front of the Pole. Szczesny was then pressed into meaningful service again on the resumption to foil first Robert Snodgrass and Martin Olsson.
Norwich were confidently playing the ball out from the back and across midfield. Anthony Pilkington and Snodgrass were finding themselves in advanced areas. Even Michael Turner felt emboldened to roam forward on one ambitious foray. City appeared to be growing in collective confidence in such exalted company until the spectre of Chelsea returned with the same sickening outcome.
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Ozil's headed finish had its origins in the attacking threat of the visitors that left Ruddy's rearguard badly undermanned. Howson's flashing low strike 12 minutes later was emblematic of the spirit and the bravery visibly inherent in Hughton's squad, but it merely roused Arsenal into a late riposte of frightening ferocity.
Ruddy had been manfully defiant as Aaron Ramsey and Nicklas Bendtner attempted to find their range, but City's over-worked defence was pierced first by Ramsey's swerving virtuoso finish and then Ozil's close range slot after Tomas Rosicky was afforded time and space to pick out the unmarked Ramsey who in turn squared to the German.
Just like Chelsea, there was a feeling Norwich had deserved more; at the very least to escape without such a heavy beating and another serious dent to the goal difference. Ruddy had played his full part with the one-handed stop to deny Giroud in the opening period matched by Ramsey's goalbound hit clawed away in the second half siege, but the England international was always going to have to be at his shot-stopping best. Whether you choose to accept the premise or not, days like these require teams of the sheer quality and deep resources of both Arsenal and Chelsea to hit a relative trough, to fail to reach the optimum output both are capable of. Even within fallow periods during games, when Norwich's pressing and willingness to engage carried sway, there is always the potential for carnage. Arsenal's response to Howson's close range tuck was merely to punish Norwich's impudence through a surgical precision that separates the best from the rest. Much in the same way Eden Hazard and Willian had halted Norwich's momentum against the Blues.
City's exhausted players deserved their ovation from the loyal ranks of away supporters at the final whistle. Arsene Wenger's post-match soundbites were equally warm and genuine; but neither insulate Hughton and his squad from the reality of their lowly league status. It remains ridiculously early in the campaign to frame definitive judgements on the Canaries' prospects but each defeat, each valiant reverse against those with loftier ambitions serves to exert greater stress on the duels Norwich must edge to retain their Premier League status.
Fail to beat Cardiff City at Carrow Road this weekend and the upbeat memories of the last two tussles against Chelsea and Arsenal will dissolve swiftly; replaced by fresh introspection and inevitable torrents of criticism. Norwich should not be castigated too harshly when they come up short against the established order. But the obvious demarcation lines that exist in the Premier League place an exponentially greater pressure on avoiding the same outcome against those who most would expect to be Norwich's direct rivals.
Trips to the Emirates or hosting Jose Mourinho's club are low-expectation, pressure-free occasions. The reverse will be true against Malky Mackay's Bluebirds. That will take a different type of bravery. To perform in front of an inevitably anxious crowd who will realise, much like those inside the camp, these are the days that really matter.