Norwich City must face the unpalatable truth to retain their Premier League status
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City need to master one skill above all others now. It is the art of riding those fluctuating currents in the very murkiest waters of the Premier League.
For the first time in a long while defeat at Wigan felt imperceptibly greater than the simple loss of three league points. There was the gnawing sense Norwich had been firmly sucked back into the relegation mix.
One swing of Arouna Kone's right leg not only emboldened Wigan for a scrap they have been fighting for months, if not years, it also slashed Norwich's margin for error. As each week slipped by there was reassurance to be had in the number of clubs situated between City and the three in greatest danger. Norwich were ticking over the draws without the wins that largely insulated them in a position of relative comfort situated on the periphery.
Now it feels like the precipice; a sensation only slightly assuaged by Aston Villa's failure to tighten things up even further with a Sunday home defeat to Liverpool. City's fate may be shaped by what happens to their closest rivals, but they will stand or fall now by their own efforts. That is not to accuse Chris Hughton or his squad of complacency because there has been no trace from within of a job already done. It is simply to accept Roberto Martinez's post-match premise the Canaries have the misfortune to be embroiled in what looks set to be the widest battle for survival in many a season.
Norwich remain in theory one win from the top ten yet one defeat from perilously dropping underneath the waterline. With so few games left that painful equation is unlikely to alter significantly between now and May. City's loyal support, along with those who have the power to directly influence Norwich's top flight future, are going to have to deal with the mental tumult.
Beat Swansea at Carrow Road this weekend and the world will look a brighter place again. Lose, and the walls start to close in even further. That is the reality now for the Canaries, and they need to embrace the starkness of their situation. Wigan's win dragged them back into the mire, along with Newcastle and the newly-appointed Paolo Di Canio's Sunderland, who have clearly decided the time was right for some ritual blood-letting in a bid to secure their Premier League status. The Latics' need for victory at kick off in the north-west was greater than Norwich's, and that desperation burst to the surface in a final quarter where Martinez's side surged forward fuelled both by necessity and an overwhelming sense Norwich on home soil was a chance they could not afford to miss.
This heightened urgency separated the teams during the closing stages of a game which until that point had underlined the similarities between the two clubs. Jean Beausejour abandoned any semblance of protection to Wigan's back three as he poured forward with apparent impunity right in front of Martinez. James McArthur's introduction by the Spaniard released James McCarthy to probe on the periphery of Norwich's penalty area. Jordi Gomez, Wigan's playmaker, moved out of the shadows to cast an increasingly influential spell on the proceedings. McCarthy slalomed around Wes Hoolahan but choked his strike wide with Lee Camp concerned enough to dive full length. Barely a minute later Michael Turner's brave block diverted Gomez's goalbound close range shot.
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City had almost dismissively repelled the hosts' best efforts for three-quarters of a contest where they enjoyed parity in terms of territorial possession. But the sea change was decisive. The goal, when it came, owed as much to Hoolahan's blind pass intended for Jonny Howson as it did Shaun Maloney's anticipation. As much to Kone's fearsome swerving strike after he gathered Gomez's weighted pass as it did Bassong's inability to close down space or Camp's failure to guard his near post. It was a poor concession from the Canaries; an abdication of control that was to precede a response to fresh adversity no less disturbing.
Hughton introduced Grant Holt, Luciano Becchio and Alex Tettey from the bench but City's attacking urges proved similarly impotent in the final throes. The failure to muster one solitary effort on Joel Robles' goal across the entire piece was a source of acute embarrassment.
Hughton and his coaching staff have wrestled with the same conundrum all season. The defensive resolution that emerged from the wreckage of some early league defeats injected renewed confidence throughout the ranks. City's economy in the final third embellished that framework built around the likes of Bassong and Turner and Tettey and Bradley Johnson. But the productivity since the turn of the year has dipped alarmingly. A return of three goals in the last two months of Norwich's Premier League season serves only to place extra stresses on a defensive pattern which formed the bedrock of their attempts at consolidation.
City's hierarchy have taken laudable steps to address clear deficiencies in a brittle part of Hughton's squad with the expensive purchase of Ricky van Wolfswinkel. But the Dutchman is Norwich City's future. It is the present they need to effect in a much more aggressively positive fashion.
Kei Kamara yet again offered a mobile target against Wigan, but the service was routinely laboured and predictable. Wigan's defensive triumvirate leisurely retreated towards Robles' goal when Norwich did break to dig in for the ball's eventual delivery.
City do not simply lack a goalscoring threat during recent times, they lack pace and guile to harass opposition defences. Such predictability is not a commodity likely to ensure safe passage.
Hughton will not broker radical changes. Nor should he. Experimentation on that scale would simply convey a level of panic. Home league games against the Swans, Reading and Villa offer a profitable route to survival.
Norwich's fighting qualities and unquenchable spirit are beyond doubt. So too the backing of a voluminous Carrow Road support, who perhaps now more than ever on this thrilling journey need to bolster the efforts of the men on the pitch.
City this season have exhibited commendable levels of resistance when tested at various junctures during Hughton's first term in office, but this is the biggest challenge they have faced by far.