Norwich City dig deep against Sunderland to keep Premier League run going
Martin O'Neill has built a managerial career crafting teams rich in honest endeavour and an unquenchable spirit. Norwich City have the Premier League patent at present.
The former Canaries' chief would have planned a better celebration to ring in the second anniversary of his arrival at the Sunderland helm, but the Northern Irishman would hardly deny Chris Hughton's men exhibit all the traits he values so highly.
City clung on to a fourth top flight home win this season for dear life at times in the second period. It was behind-the-sofa viewing for Norwich's fan base as the excellent Danny Rose and Adam Johnson raided down the flanks, Craig Gardner drove the Black Cats on from midfield and Connor Wickham did a passable impression of Steven Fletcher after the team's top scorer made an early injury exit.
Norwich required fresh reserves of character to subdue Sunderland to counter-balance an opening period dripping with the attacking intent Hughton had been craving during the club's recent unbeaten run. O'Neill's visitors looked inhibited from the first whistle, but that would be to overlook a vibrancy to Norwich's play encapsulated by a match-winning goal of artistic quality.
Grant Holt's initial thrusts typified Norwich's mindset; to get City firmly on the front foot and expose brittle confidence in the Black Cats' ranks. Matthew Kilgallon was yellow carded inside four minutes for a rash attempt to nick the ball away from the skipper. Holt's flick momentarily interested Wes Hoolahan but Carlos Cuellar was round on the cover. The Spaniard hardly retained fond memories of his last trip to Carrow Road – that less than glorious farewell for Aston Villa on the final day of last season. Cuellar had been bullied by Holt and Simeon Jackson on that May afternoon and there was little sympathy bestowed by the Barclay with Cuellar an unwilling participant in Sebastien Bassong's opener.
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Cuellar's arm appeared to brush Bradley Johnson's glancing header from Robert Snodgrass' dipping free kick as Bassong anticipated the looping trajectory like a seasoned predatory striker to hook past the diving Simon Mignolet.
There was more than a touch of karma attached, given the nature of Southampton's midweek salvo at St Mary's, when Rickie Lambert profited from an inadvertent hand ball to despatch Adam Lallana's set piece.
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Behind on the scoreboard, Sunderland looked like a side in need of jump leads. Johnson had already tried to catch out Mark Bunn with a fizzing left footer, but Stephane Sessegnon's slip on the edge of the home area was symptomatic of the Wearsiders' struggles to establish any measure of parity in terms of possession and territory.
Bassong held a hand up in apology to Alex Tettey after his miscued header dropped for Sessegnon to hack wide – a rare blemish from the Cameroonian international who underlines with each passing outing in green and yellow what an astute piece of business Hughton conjured in the summer to entice him from Tottenham.
The track-suited O'Neill stood impassively at the front of his technical area. Arms folded. The Northern Irishman must have had a grudging respect for the way Tettey and Johnson were biting into tackles, how Holt was bullying his centre backs and Bassong dominating Fletcher. Mignolet's rushed clearance dropped at the feet of Snodgrass, but the Scot was eventually subdued by weight of numbers.
Rose was a beacon in a sea of Sunderland mediocrity. The Tottenham and England U21 loan starlet took Snodgrass back into his own half for the first time to force a corner before advancing onto Sebastian Larsson's disguised cut back to strike low first-time, but Bunn dropped smartly to smother on his goal line.
City's second, when it arrived, was a thing of beauty. Both in execution and creation it underlined the gulf between these two sides. Norwich patiently advanced towards the perimeter of Sunderland's penalty area. Holt, Wes Hoolahan, Javier Garrido and Anthony Pilkington all combined to drag the Black Cats deeper, but with no immediate opening, back the ball went until Johnson clipped a pass down the side of the luckless Cuellar. Pilkington used his body to shield the harassed centre-back before a swerve onto his right opened up the target to guide into Mignolet's bottom corner.
The finish was simplicity personified, but it betrayed a build-up high in technical proficiency few outside Norfolk would attribute with Hughton's squad. Norwich's unbeaten run has been founded on defensive resolution; here they added the attacking garnish.
Sunderland looked dead and buried, but their lifeline in first half stoppage time owed as much to rare defensive vulnerability from the hosts as it did Gardner's sweeping hit from the edge of the area that Bunn could only touch with his finger tips as it arrowed into the bottom corner.
Ryan Bennett's awareness saved the day straight on the restart with a challenge that had to be perfectly-timed to prevent pantomime villain Wickham bundling home Sessegnon's cross. After the stroll of the first 40 minutes, it now felt like a contest for the Canaries. Sunderland probed with renewed intent. Norwich were having to retreat and concede territory. There was a palpable edginess around the stadium as first Tettey and then Bassong both made timely interceptions just in front of Bunn.
Gardner did little to alleviate the heightened anxiety levels with a thumping free-kick that cannoned back into play off Bunn's left-hand post, but Kilgallon horribly lifted over when it appeared far more routine to guide into an unguarded net. Hughton talked readily in those early difficult moments of the season about the absence of a fortuitous glance or two from Lady Luck. Kilgallon's miss was City's full quota to this point in one sliver of Premier League action.
Garrido kicked off the line with Bunn exposed. Then City's keeper guessed right in his personal battle of wills with Sessegnon after Tettey had passed straight to Rose. It was a frantic, breathless onslaught at times but City survived.
Elliott Bennett was introduced for Snodgrass to try and nullify the excellent Rose and nearly carved out a third when Holt met his cross on the half-volley only to slam over. Rose flashed wide as time ebbed away for the Wearsiders before Bunn held onto Gardner's stoppage time free-kick. City had passed one of their most gruelling tests of the season. O'Neill could only bow his head on the final whistle. His Norwich counterpart is the one looking up.