Norwich City know what they have to do now
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
That gnawing sense of a self-inflicted blow will cut deeper than any lasting damage to Norwich City's Premier League prospects.
What unfolded at the Britannia on an afternoon which did nothing to advance the cause of the beautiful game should be treated in isolation.
Chris Hughton's squad have more than enough quality, nous and spirit to get what they require from the final home games against Aston Villa and West Brom. Another pointless trip to Stoke was merely a missed opportunity and fresh source of irritation.
The path to a third consecutive season of top flight football now appears paved with tension and further agonies for City's loyal support. It should come as little surprise, given the margins between the elite and the rest are so infinitesimally small and a season in its final throes routinely offers hazardous unpredictability.
Those storms clouds that must have encircled above the away end at full-time dissipated when news of Tottenham's late equaliser at Wigan filtered through and lifted further following Newcastle's abject surrender at St James' Park.
That is the tangle Norwich have become embroiled in and there will have been little in the way of sympathy extended in these parts towards their closest rivals.
But what will linger from another fruitless excursion to the Potteries is the realisation Norwich knew the threat that awaited them and bar one lapse in collective concentration managed to successfully subdue it. Stoke's relieved fans greeted the final whistle with a crescendo of noise to mirror that which heralded Norwich's victory against Reading the previous weekend. Tony Pulis' men had scaled the mountain yet again and they will care little they owe that ascent to such an abrasive style of football.
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Norwich have been similarly castigated in certain quarters for a set piece prowess and quality from wide areas underpinning their own survival surge.
Pulis has distilled a raw-boned method of combat that at its best, or rather worst in the eyes of the purists, appears resistant to challenge. Stoke ratchet up the pressure and the pressing game to an unbearable degree with the sole aim of entrapping opposition defences deep inside their own territory. High balls rain down towards Peter Crouch and Cameron Jerome. Sebastien Bassong and Ryan Bennett stood their ground in the early exchanges, but Stoke never waver - they just re-cycle and club it forward again from defence. A corner or a free kick in the final third triggers an audible increase in the volume.
Charlie Adam is the laser-guided precision in amongst the heavy artillery. The Scottish international proved the class act on the park. Only Steven N'Zonzi's helpfully errant positioning saved the Canaries after Jerome had pulled clear of his marker on the far post to re-direct Adam's corner goalwards in a move one suspected had been drilled on the training pitches of the Potteries.
Stoke have played by these numbers for the past five seasons, which is why the defining moment of the game proved so depressingly familiar.
Crouch towered above Ryan Bennett to glance Ryan Shawcross' latest long range lift into the heart of the Norwich penalty area within a minute of the second half resumption. Bassong and Jerome indulged in a muscular tango sufficiently long enough for the alert Adam to use the pair's grappling as a means to extricate himself from Steven Whittaker's close attentions. The control and hit in one seamless motion left Mark Bunn exposed.
It was a quality finish to a crude, ugly incursion and it was enough to carry Stoke to safety. But for Crouch's close range miscue shortly after when Bassong was encircled in a pincer by Adam and Jerome it could have been worse.
The parallels with Norwich's recent visit to Wigan were maddeningly clear. Once the sporadic early intent from Robert Snodgrass, Kei Kamara and Bradley Johnson had subsided, City again looked to frustrate and contain. When they were forced onto the front foot through circumstance, they lacked penetration.
Hughton's strategy is routinely portrayed as negative by his detractors but there was no failure of ambition at the Britannia; only a failure in execution. Both in the bright early skirmishes and then following Stoke's breakthrough after the interval, Norwich worked enough advance positions in and around the vicinity of Begovic's box to have re-gained parity. The Potters retreated as the game elapsed to protect their slender advantage. Swathes of the Britannia's green acreage were ceded to the visitors in that final quarter, but Begovic was largely untroubled.
When the Canaries did deliver from wide, Stoke's number one was able to confidently collect under minimal pressure. Hughton introduced Wes Hoolahan and Elliott Bennett with plenty of time left in the proceedings before Anthony Pilkington added his attacking presence in the final minutes. Yet it took until the last act and the unmarked Kamara's glancing near post header from Ryan Bennett's long throw to raise even a momentary alarm inside Stoke's penalty area.
On days like these or at the DW Stadium you see the limitations of City's policy of stealth. There is much to laud about Hughton and his players' sterling efforts to fight against the prevailing currents; to compete when really the financial disparities suggest they have no right to do so.
But in so doing, the Canaries' genuine successes this season merely raise expectations - perhaps to the club's detriment, given the relatively small pool of resources Hughton has at his disposal when compared with the majority of the Premier League.
When they overcome Arsenal or Manchester United, or repel Sunderland with 10 men for an hour or even swamp Reading at Carrow Road on an afternoon that in all probability will define their season, anything feels possible. Such momentum propels them in a forward direction.
The reality is since the turn of this year City's progress has been fitful. To all intents and purposes they have perched on the periphery of the relegation scrap.
Much like Stoke have discovered in a season of relative decline, the evolutionary process from consolidation to growth is proving no less difficult to master.