Paddy Davitt verdict: One final hurdle for Smith to clear at City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
There is no chance of any festive leftovers in the Dean Smith household on the evidence of Norwich City’s efforts in a losing cause against Manchester United.
Missing two centre backs through injury on the eve of battle, with another still working his way into the mix following early season ankle surgery. Then your captain is body slammed in a tussle with Cristiano Ronaldo, before he departs with a suspected dislocated shoulder.
No problem. Pair a central midfielder, who dabbles a bit at left back, alongside an actual central defender, who had played a sum total of zero minutes under Smith since his arrival.
Then watch them for the most part produce the type of cohesive offering that belied they were shunted together out of pure necessity.
Or Dimi Giannoulis, in for the ineligible Brandon Williams, and serving up the type of combative display without the ball that sold a lie to the accusation he is a defender in name only.
Or Przemyslaw Placheta deservedly earning that ovation as he trooped around the perimeter of the playing surface after his second half substitution, following a first Norwich start since February.
Not forgetting Smith’s high wire act was achieved minus Milot Rashica, Mathias Normann and Christos Tzolis.
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Yet with the off cuts and the scraps he melded what he had left into a fighting force who pushed their illustrious visitors to the brink.
So much so it took a penalty Smith labelled as ‘soft as it gets’ to settle a contest his opposite number, Ralf Rangnick, conceded was decided in large part by David De Gea’s shot stopping brilliance.
Further afield this will be packaged as what United failed to do rather than how well Norwich set about the task. There was a relish and an intensity which illustrated they are warming to the job of Premier League survival.
Yes, if you want to be less than charitable, those questions marks around the lack of end product and a ruthless edge in the final third at the highest level continue to persist, after another fruitless episode in front of goal.
But it would be remiss not to acknowledge just how good De Gea was in the crucial moments, and how many City actually carved out. So too Tim Krul, who made vital first half stops to ensure there was parity.
After the scale, if not the manner, of his first defeat in charge against Tottenham this performance underscored Smith and his assistant Craig Shakespeare have instilled a belief in whoever takes the field they do belong on the same pitch as Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho and the rest.
Spurs did not mark the end of the honeymoon phase and a return to normal service. City’s approach on and off the pitch at Carrow Road was brave with innovation and on the front foot.
There is a critical mass forming of all the elements you need, from the tactical tweaks to the depth of quality and cover when injuries and unavailability bites, but the challenge now for City’s coaching brains is to convince these players to take the final step.
When you have been written off and ridiculed in certain quarters it may take a larger body of work to allay any lingering self doubt.
As Smith himself said after this game, in two tussles against the traditional top six Norwich were the equal of both Tottenham and Manchester United in many respects.
But in both losses City failed to add to their paltry points tally. They are still heavily reliant on slip ups each weekend from their nearest rivals.
That will continue until they truly take matters into their own hands and marry the productivity this current level of performance really merits.
The fear now is how Smith can cajole and harness the same physical output, the same relentless intensity in such a short space of time with so many question marks around who is available for the visit of Aston Villa.
A game for so many reasons that will hype itself.
Expect the Norwich head coach to downplay any talk of revenge on his part, after his recent departure from a club that is in his blood and that of his family. This is business not pleasure. There is professional not personal pride at stake.
Given how deep a depleted group dug in against United he must feel a tipping point is tantalisingly within reach.
A positive result against the Claret and Blues would mark a signpost to the future, not a full stop on the past.