Norwich City have a top operator in their midst
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
All the top operators play with that wonderful sense of arrogance and self-belief you need to flourish in the Premier League. Gary Hooper has it in abundance.
Hooper strikes you as a humble individual who would likely baulk at any comparisons with the very best. He would probably be right, given his Premier League career is still in the embryonic phase, but there was as much to admire in the celebration as there was to marvel at the dexterous impudence of his equaliser in a game where Swansea had established a degree of dominance.
Hooper merely stood with one arm raised as bedlam erupted around Carrow Road and his team-mates swarmed towards him to herald a finish that in its execution and technical ability had parallels with Luis Surarez's opener against the Canaries last month at Anfield. Hooper's celebration was reminiscent of Eric Cantona's when the Frenchman produced an exquisite chip from outside the penalty area against Sunderland in 1996. Cantona's body language was no less expressive than Hooper's as Old Trafford rose in acclaim; as if it was the type of goal they routinely conjure rather than a brilliant virtuoso demonstration of talent and athletic co-ordination.
Cantona was a talisman who inspired a golden era under Sir Alex Ferguson. Hooper is rapidly emerging as a cult figure on the terraces and an essential component of Chris Hughton's bid for Premier League improvement.
The 25-year-old has now plundered six goals in 13 Norwich appearances; tellingly three in his last four top flight games. City's improved fortunes and forward momentum is hardly coincidental. They can now approach games in the sure knowledge they have a man with the capability to score at a productive rate.
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Swansea's opener owed as much to Sebastien Bassong's inability to intercept Ashley Williams' raking pass as it did Nathan Dyer's spatial awareness to shrug off the home captain and regain his composure to lift over the advancing John Ruddy. Dyer's goal sucked the life out of a vibrant opening from Hughton's side that with each passing minute of the first half receded further until Hooper's game-changing intervention. Johan Elmander's touch diverted Steven Whittaker's pass into Hooper's orbit but few inside the stadium would have expected the audacious chest control and slashing volley that arced over Michel Vorm.
The lingering sense of disappointment was in Norwich's collective failure to push forward from that bridgehead. Given Swansea's gruelling schedule and Dyer's unfortunate early injury exit the Canaries inexplicably found themselves pinned back in the final throes. It was a tribute to Michael Laudrup's side that half-time brought sufficient respite to re-establish their authority again in those key midfield areas. Norwich threatened sporadically in the second half when Swansea ceded them the ball around the perimeter of Ruddy's area after another move of rich promise foundered around the ineffectual Michu, yet the hosts still engineered enough chances to have completed a comeback which would have edged them into the top 10 at Swansea's expense.
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Jordi Amat fortuitously cleared Michael Turner's initial header over after it cannoned against the back of his head. Vorm's erratic afternoon, punctuated by miscued punches and a desire to test the patience of referee Michael Oliver, also brought a sharp one-handed parry to deny Hooper a second and Nathan Redmond's urgency down the right produced sporadic delivery that on another afternoon may have brought greater reward. But that merely fuelled a sense of frustration over Norwich's fitful attacking urges.
Swansea's exertions at home and abroad may have become a factor if the visitors had been shaken out of their stylish stride over a prolonged period instead of allowing Jonathan de Guzman to set the same metronomic tempo in those congested central areas that allowed Jonjo Shelvey to become an increasingly influential figure.
Ruddy remained largely well-protected until he raced from his line to smother Shelvey's attempted lift over him in the closing seconds. Wilfried Bony's right-footed shot from 18 yards moments before was suitably close for Ruddy to spring to his left but Norwich undeniably fashioned the better chances.
Hughton's side has performed with stealth and a consistency at Carrow Road which until the Hawthorns had eluded them on the road. In that context a point against a very cohesive Swansea outfit should not be disregarded lightly. Laudrup's squad look more than capable of another top-half finish but crucially for the Canaries they retained a sense of forward momentum; albeit at a slower pace than they would have desired ahead of this latest match, but given the stop, start nature of their efforts in recent times it provided further proof Norwich can approach the festive period with renewed confidence.
This time last season the campaign stalled horribly, but with senior first team players to return from injury and a January transfer window opportunity to embellish the playing resources Norwich look in a far healthier state. And in Hooper they have a genuine Premier League predator in their midst.