No time for self-doubts, Norwich City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City's search for Premier League longevity appears to have shifted from the pitch to between the ears.
A new front has opened up alongside formations, philosophies and individual errors; namely instilling the belief Alex Neil's men belong on the same pitch, breathing the same air, as some stellar names and distinguished football clubs.
Neil's comments on the eve of Everton's visit were intriguing. The deference and the disquiet on the terraces in that sobering first half underlined the Scot feels he has an issue to address. Events at White Hart Lane yesterday merely brought things into sharper focus.
After one or two bright early forays at Carrow Road Norwich appeared increasingly inhibited and withdrawn. The passion Neil demanded in the build up dissolved into passivity as the Toffees' pace and power, constructed around the intimidating presence of Romelu Lukaku, threatened to sweep them aside.
Lukaku looked a force of nature at times in the first half with an enviable cast list supplying the ammunition. Gerard Deulofeu, Ross Barkley and Arouna Kone raid in waves, the recalled Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman offer width and Gareth Barry and Tom Cleverley provide the insurance.
The blurring motions and slickness to their movements in that opening period dazzled Neil's side. Declan Rudd's acute sense of danger denied Kone twice after he had dived inside Andre Wisdom.
Rudd could do nothing about Lukaku's close range header, guided back across his goal from Deulofeu's deep cross, but there was plenty to ponder in the moments that preceded it. Norwich gave away possession in central midfield, then conceded a corner, then the ball when Martin Olsson's weak clearance afforded Deulofeu time and space to locate the fearsome Lukaku.
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A growing sense of unease on the pitch transmitted itself to the stands. Carrow Road was an uncomfortable place for all concerned, among the home ranks, and that frustration manifested itself in an outpouring of negativity.
Norwich needed a release. It came with the half-time whistle and mercifully no further damage after Baines' shot cannoned back off the post and Lukaku miscued from inside the six-yard box.
The full transcript of Neil's harsh words to his players may stay inside the four walls of the home dressing room, but the transformation proved swift and dramatic. Ryan Bennett made his presence felt with a towering header that Wes Hoolahan bundled over the line from point blank range.
The echoes with Arsenal were inescapable. Another high quality outfit who looked a class apart were suddenly forced onto the back foot; Norwich's soaring self-confidence matched by a rising mood of optimism around the stadium. City may not have deserved it in the final analysis, but only Cameron Jerome's wild finish after advancing onto Hoolahan's clever flick seven yards out denied them a quite remarkable victory. That and another fine Rudd stop to foil Barry.
But this is a troubling trend. Neil has identified it, now he has to solve it. It requires leadership and bravery. It also requires an injection of fresh blood next month to raise the quality threshold and develop a mindset resistant to adverse currents. Neil talked pre-match about lingering scars from those who experienced the stress of Premier League relegation two seasons ago. City were undoubtedly far more aggressive in their attacking motions from the outset against the Toffees - until they fell behind. Then Norwich's brittleness and frailty was an open invitation to Roberto Martinez's side.
A run of one league win 11 is testing the mental capacity of the squad and the robustness of Neil's methods. That and the stirrings of resistance in the north-east. The response to the 'unacceptable' surrender at Watford was four changes to Neil's starting line up, but the same weakness was apparent in the spell between Lukaku's opener and Hoolahan's equaliser. Thereafter the playing field levelled, the quality gap narrowed and Norwich delivered a more than passable impression of a resolute top flight entity.
That is the problem. We have been already here before against Arsenal, when the anticipated leap forward stalled at Vicarage Road. City established another bridgehead in the second half at the Toffees' expense. Few would pick upcoming trips to Old Trafford or White Hart Lane for lift-off. Or maybe they would?
If Norwich display the courage of their convictions to prevail at either outpost that might just be the catalyst to convince Neil's men they possess the mental fortitude and quality to belong in the Premier League.