Norwich City in need of final flourish following defeat to Aston Villa
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Now is not the time for recriminations. Now is the time for Norwich City to hold their nerve.
The summer will be torturously long enough for post-mortems and introspection should Chris Hughton and his players not summon one last effort to secure Premier League survival.
Hughton pulled no punches in sifting through the wreck of this self-inflicted late defeat to Aston Villa. City have got themselves into this sorry mess through an inability to re-discover the consistent seam of form and results that underpinned a club-record Premier League run before Christmas. Each fresh struggle, each dose of disappointment and frustration merely confirms the suspicion that stellar surge was the exception rather than the rule. That perhaps this group of players and this management team is simply not up to the task of safeguarding the Canaries' cherished top flight status.
The statistics since make damning reading; the inability to embellish defensive resolution with attacking potency is the soundtrack to the season. But those who hold that view would be ill-advised to pen the obituaries just yet. City's collective core of players have been proving people wrong all their careers. Adversity is nothing new to men like Russell Martin and Grant Holt who had to begin their steep ascent from non league backwaters. Or the likes of Anthony Pilkington and Bradley Johnson who failed to make the grade at Premier League academies in their youth. It is only the context and the stakes that have been raised to steepling heights after failing to beat a rival below them at kick-off.
Norwich did not perform like the shell of a team blindly staggering towards the Championship. They were a cohesive, well-drilled unit for all of the opening period. Gabby Agbonlahor's scintillating array of intelligent movement and rapier precision ripped the destiny of this contest from the Canaries. Even then, Holt's nerveless penalty success after another calamitous outing in claret and blue from young full-back Joe Bennett appeared at the very least to have ensured parity. The sickening final twist merely confirmed what we have all known.
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City's personnel and methods contain inherent structural weakness. Heroic defensive displays and dashes of set piece quality only paper over the cracks for so long. Norwich possess no-one in the same mould as the electric Agbonlahor; a whirling dervish of energy who had the power, pace and direct running to harass an entire backline at times. Just like Garath McCleary did for Reading at Carrow Road last time out when the disconnect between Norwich's retreating midfield and vulnerable defence left Mark Bunn exposed. Or even Gareth Bale on Norfolk soil earlier this season, when the Welsh maestro salvaged a late point with a fearsome burst that began on the half-way line.
City's preferred approach is in marked contrast. The Canaries edge towards opposition penalty areas with methodical, measured incursions. Players like Bale and Agbonlahor simply unleash waves of panic in their vapour trails. Brad Guzan was a virtual spectator despite City's overwhelming territorial dominance, until Agbonlahor's virtuoso strike 10 minutes after the interval triggered a shift in the flow of a game Norwich had controlled.
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The returns of both Wes Hoolahan and Pilkington unquestionably injected dynamism and a spirit of adventure that had been sorely absent at Stoke.
Holt must surely have relished the plentiful supply lines as balls were delivered from either flank, but for all Hughton's noble attempts at revision the periodic bluntness of Norwich's attacking urges was yet again simply magnified by the urgency typified by Agbonlahor.
The former England striker's 89th minute winner sucked the life out of the rhythmic pyrotechnics that had again engulfed Carrow Road. No amount of noise or decibels can insulate Norwich from the porous breaches in a defensive pattern that allowed Agbonlahor space and time to whip Ashley Westwood's teasing pass across Bunn.
Hughton may well question Sebastien Bassong's failure to anticipate or Bunn's errant positioning or even how Westwood was able to thread the ball unimpeded from central midfield. It was still a cruel blow. The empty, hollow feeling at full-time was palpable. City's support will have felt like gate-crashers at their own party as Paul Lambert strode to the middle yet again to salute the away end. The Scot's reactions to Agbonlahor's brace provided an intriguing caveat. Lambert barely acknowledged the striker's opener in what appeared a pre-meditated act of understatement, given his usual touchline histrionics. The emotion erupted to the surface after the dramatic winner, with a double fist pump at the front of his technical area.
Villa's manager enjoyed his moment in the sun. Carrow Road remains a happy hunting ground. It needs to stay that way for one final gut-wrenching afternoon against West Brom. When the fog clears and the pall lifts, Hughton and his coaching staff face a test as big as any in their professional careers. That is not hyperbole, that is the reality framed by astronomical numbers on the balance sheets of clubs fortunate to remain part of the Premier League brand and with it granted privileged access to vast reserves of fresh broadcast revenue. Hughton's immediate task is to lift a set of players who must have been crushed at the manner of this defeat. To expend all that effort and all that endeavour for no tangible reward must feel a debilitating exercise. Wigan's win at West Brom merely served to magnify the desperate nature of Norwich's plight.
City's players need to find something from deep within to respond in kind. To handle the inevitable pressures during the build up that will dwarf those before the recent Reading win.
Hughton and his men have been at pains over recent weeks to stress the Canaries have largely remained distant from the scrap at the bottom. They are in grave danger now at the most critical juncture of the season.
Wigan's midweek game in hand against Swansea will test the emotions again, but irrespective of the potential myriad of survival scenarios Norwich know a victory over the Baggies is a must. Anything else is unthinkable.