Norwich City look at ease amongst Premier League high society
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
A wonderful sense of liberation swept around Carrow Road after Norwich City's stirring display against Manchester City.
This was the day when the Blues would re-assert their claims to the Premier League crown after a stumble against Chelsea. It may just be the day Norwich re-discovered the self-belief and renewed that unifying link with their own supporters which will be essential for the final push.
It feels almost churlish to point out the Canaries actually slipped a place closer to the bottom three, given the magnificently resolute statement they delivered against a lavishly-assembled opponent. Manuel Pellegrini offered up the Citizens' injury worries as mitigation for a fresh anaemic offering in front of goal. That will ring hollow in these parts given the Canaries' have had to survive on far more meagre resources for the majority of this campaign.
Hughton lost Robert Snodgrass, Jonas Gutierrez and Ryan Bennett in the build-up, in addition to the absences of Michael Turner, Jonny Howson and Elliott Bennett, yet he still melded a formation that proved defensively impervious and carried enough latent attacking threat to have even executed an improbable victory.
That they did not perhaps is further evidence of those seemingly intractable problems in the final third which remain a recurring theme. At Cardiff, it contributed to a debilitating defeat. Against one of the noveau riche on home soil it served to ensure a parity they so richly deserved.
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Hughton, his players and the majority inside the stadium who roared their approval at the final whistle know any regression from such a seasonal high against West Ham at Upton Park on Tuesday and the negative currents will swirl again. Norwich inhabit a perilous position but this is the type of performance they will be judged on over the run-in. Hughton now has a base to work with after edging the tactical battle with his Manchester City counterpart.
Alex Tettey and Bradley Johnson were re-united in a reprise of the defensive screening role that underpinned those landmark home league wins last season over Arsenal and Manchester United. Tettey at his marauding best has been a huge miss for the Canaries. Howson may offer the creative, goalscoring dimension but Tettey injects energy and dynamism into Norwich's pressing template.
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The visitors predictably dominated territory and possession but the lateral movements floundered on the twin pillars of Norwich's deep-lying midfielders. Leroy Fer was relieved of some of the onerous responsibility which appears increasingly to weigh heavily on the young Dutchman's shoulders.
Nathan Redmond may have owed his elevation to Snodgrass' groin injury, but his pace and directness was the perfect antidote to a defensive gameplan which required a release valve to annoy Pellegrini's side.
John Ruddy was secure when called to account but bar a smart first half stop to repel Stevan Jovetic he was protected by the men in front. Seb Bassong was the commanding player of last season, not the hesitant operator who looked badly exposed at the Etihad.
Joseph Yobo needed all his experience to help subdue the visitors' potent array of weaponry after he was fast-tracked into Norwich's central defence. Martin Olsson typified the prevailing air of defiance when he gave no thought to his personal safety to launch himself in front of Jesus Navas' goalbound strike from barely six yards as the siege intensified after the interval. It was that type of afternoon.
The volume grew as each threatening wave subsided. This was not a day to highlight individual performances but a recognition of what is possible when Hughton can seamlessly knit the collective at his disposal, and those he entrusts perform to their optimum potential.
Much of the rancour and the frustration over recent months stems from the realisation Norwich have short-changed their supporters. When they see a performance laced with honesty and rich in endeavour they have a right to expect more.
Few could have begrudged Hughton and his squad a late winner as a fitting reward for their boldness. A diving Ricky van Wolfswinkel was unable to divert Redmond's driven cross as it flashed across the face of the six-yard-box. Anthony Pilkington cutely rolled Pablo Zabaleta but guided over with the club's record signing pleading for a pass. Hughton preaches religiously about the fine margins - and there could be no more stark example - but City must harness the residual benefits from a palpable shift in the mood music.
The lasting legacy for a defining period to come must be more than one point and one step closer to crossing the Rubicon towards a fourth consecutive season of Premier League football. The manner of their labours against the title challengers should re-affirm, both themselves and their long-suffering support, they still retain control of their destiny.
Too often in a campaign of maddening inconsistency they appear to have been buffeted by events and outside forces. For what felt like the first time in a long while, they exhibited a cohesion and a sense of purpose that may convince the doubters.