Norwich City face a familiar crime sheet
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
FA Cup embarrassment heaped on top of a Championship no-show at Reading does nothing to shake the belief Norwich City's season is in terminal decline.
That pre-festive spurt of self-confidence and attacking flair look increasingly like a break from the norm since the heady days of autumn when no peak appeared beyond Neil Adams' carefully constructed squad.
Norwich were vibrant, resolute and purposeful in claiming 10 league points from 12 to suggest they had emerged from a prolonged slump. Given the paucity of their efforts in the last two outings it is tempting to focus on the deficiencies of their opponents. Wigan, under the new management of Malky Mackay, appear a club listing in even deeper waters than the Canaries at the wrong end of the table. Nothing since from the Latics has suggested anything other than Mackay faces a stern test of his managerial credentials to keep them in the Championship.
Huddersfield were reduced to 10 men at Carrow Road after they had already struck the bar and shown in the early exchanges an attacking ambition that threatened the hosts. Derby roused themselves after a gruelling schedule which saw them succumb to promotion rivals Middlesbrough on Teesside then exit the Capital One Cup to Chelsea.
City's defensive frailties were laid bare again in the East Midlands before they dredged a deserved point but Millwall were by some measure the poorest opponent seen at Carrow Road for many a year on Boxing Day.
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It is difficult to arrive at any other conclusion on the evidence of City's league surrender in Berkshire to end 2014 on a fittingly sour note allied to the manner of their now customary early FA Cup departure.
Norwich have been compliant, lacking in self-belief and brushed aside with an almost dismissive air.
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The same leading questions surrounding Adams' ability to extract the most from his plentiful resources, the perceived brittleness at the heart of his squad, the timidity in the face of adversity, the lack of leadership, the fitful attacking urges and the sluggish defending have returned louder than ever.
Adams showed no disrespect to the FA Cup in naming as strong a starting line-up as he could, given the wisdom of protecting players showing the strains of a gruelling campaign. Yet the application and the attitude was no better than at Shrewsbury in the Capital One Cup earlier this season; a night which may well in the final analysis be the point when the rollercoaster plunged south at hurtling speed.
Norwich must now halt the Championship leaders on their own turf when the league action resumes. Few outside the camp will construct a case on recent evidence City can get anything from a free-scoring Bournemouth.
What matters is whether those inside the tent share the same belief. They are the ones shaping Norwich's destiny.
At this critical juncture in a season of receding optimism there appears no appetite to fight, no willingness to match the intensity of opponents who may not possess the technical ability or the talent but have probed for weaknesses that have been palpably evident since that opening weekend at Wolves when City succumbed to the ferocity they faced in the Black Country.
It is a sad indictment on Adams and his players they face the same accusations beyond the halfway point of a campaign geared towards promotion.
Preston were energetic and committed but the tie was there for the taking, yet Norwich were unable to create one shot on target in Lancashire.
That defies belief from a line-up with the creative urgings of Wes Hoolahan, Jonny Howson and Bradley Johnson in support of a striker with a prolific pedigree like Gary Hooper. The experiment with Hoolahan pushed into an advanced role behind Hooper failed spectacularly.
Hooper's natural inclination to drop deeper to link the play merely over-populated a crowded midfield prizing athleticism and endeavour which pushed Hoolahan to the margins.
On another afternoon of sparse productivity in forward areas there was always the uneasy sense City would be breached at the opposite end. Simon Grayson had clearly targeted Ignasi Miquel's flank for special treatment. Jack King's far post header as he towered above the Spaniard was despatched by Paul Gallagher, who was then left unattended when Ryan Bennett was robbed by Jermaine Beckford to seal City's fate; both goals avoidable, both from forays within seconds of Adams' bid to turn the tide through the late introductions of Josh Murphy and Jamar Loza.
In isolation, another brief flirtation with the fabled cup competition would be a minor irritant if City's progress in the league was assured. It is anything but. Now the fear is of another hangover the like of which afflicted them following their previous cup exit in Shropshire. Any repeat and lingering promotion hopes can be put into cold storage. Norwich's fans are losing hope. You can hardly blame them.