Norwich City must use pain at Arsenal to their advantage
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City's players must distil the fury they felt at the final whistle and use it to fuel their charge towards Premier League safety.
Chris Hughton's men have deserved castigation at times during this season for the abject lows in league and cup liberally sprinkled with the soaring highs of that club-record Premier League unbeaten run and some notable scalps along the way.
But they did not deserve the fate that befell them at the Emirates. Hollow platitudes were all they had left as they trooped exhausted from the pitch after a priceless win was snatched away.
To bait the match officials is a depressingly routine phenomenon; a well-versed tactic to mask the deficiencies of players and managers, but the outcome at the Emirates unquestionably hinged on a series of highly contentious decisions.
Norwich bore the brunt, but Arsene Wenger was quick to point out the debatable foul that led to City's opening salvo, despatched by Michael Turner, following a clip from ex-City loanee Kieran Gibbs on Kei Kamara. Theo Walcott may also have felt hard done by when he burst into the Norwich penalty area and tumbled to the ground under pressure from Steven Whittaker.
How ironic that particular incident in the midst of Arsenal's increasingly fraught search for an equaliser developed in front of the assistant referee who ultimately tilted this breathless Premier League game in the hosts' favour.
Top level officiating is a thankless task, where the forensic scrutiny triggered by saturation coverage ensures a good day at the office is always measured by the absence of real controversy. But the incompetence of Mr West was breathtaking; the potential ramifications from his personal actions for the Canaries' survival prospects truly alarming. If the sole criteria demanded is they get the big calls right, then referee Mike Jones and his far side assistant failed miserably. Detach any raw emotion, strip out any charges of bias towards the Canaries and even with the benefit of a hindsight not afforded the officials what unfolded from the moment Robert Snodgrass was erroneously adjudged to have conceded an 83rd minute corner until Lukasz Podolski's stoppage time strike still remains indigestible.
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For West to rule Snodgrass had actually shepherded the ball over his own byline was a stunning piece of misjudgement. To accept such a premise is to suggest the Scottish international willing conceded a corner to afford Arsenal a fresh chance to deliver a quality set piece into Mark Bunn's penalty area. Or worse, if there was indeed the slightest brush against Snodgrass not picked up by any television evidence then it could only have resulted in the illegal pressure exerted by Aaron Ramsey, which in itself should have triggered a free kick to the visitors.
Given West failed to deal with an incident five yards away it is even more remarkable he spotted Kamara's grappling with Oliver Giroud through a mass of yellow and red shirts. For referee Jones to defer to his colleague four times further away from the scene of the crime despite an apparently unobstructed view verged on a dereliction of duty. Giroud appeared to have reciprocated in kind to at the very least cast genuine doubt on Kamara's guilt.
The Frenchman underlined he was no stranger to the dark arts of the penalty box when he used fair means and foul to get the wrong side of Sebastien Bassong to bundle home Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's inviting cross just three minutes after Mikel Arteta had levelled from the spot. Not to overlook the aerial challenge which edged Whittaker out of the way for Walcott - who had advanced into an offside position - to provide the key assist in the final goal that sealed Norwich's defeat.
Both Hughton and his players should be commended for their response to clear injustice – save Bunn's caution for apparent dissent in the aftermath of the penalty award. What transpired at the Emirates only served to heighten the sense of unease at City's enduring struggle to extricate themselves from a relegation scrap that has sucked in a number of rivals over the past couple of months.
Hughton and his coaching staff need to accentuate the positives again. Arsenal predictably dominated territory and possession but in a mirror of the corresponding fixture at Carrow Road, City's disciplined shape and collective pressing appeared to be the perfect antidote to Arsenal's cultured probing. Bunn was forced to deny Giroud from close range in the first half before the Frenchman clipped the top of his bar with a glancing header. The incursions were sporadic and manageable in nature. Only when Wenger dipped into his enviable reserves did the tempo alter dramatically. Walcott's introduction down the right flank followed swiftly by Podolski and then Oxlade-Chamberlain injected a drive and a vigour that exposed Norwich in wide channels. Turner's headed goal stung the Gunners' into a response of such ferocity it served only to highlight how well Norwich had nullified the hosts to that point.
Bradley Johnson's injury exit proved no less decisive; robbing City of a tigerish presence in front of the visitors' back four. Only Bacary Sagna will know if there was real malicious intent behind his foot-high challenge, but the scent of retribution hung in the air after the pair's fractious collision in last season's corresponding fixture left the full-back with a broken leg. Bunn acrobatically diverted Podolski's swinging strike against his bar as the storm grew in intensity, but this was a last act of defiance rather than the crowning glory for a victory that would have carried seismic implications at both ends of the Premier League table.
City succumbed amidst a battery of blinding attacking movements and staggeringly inept officiating. Arsenal will perhaps argue with some justification the best team prevailed, based on territorial control and their ability to change gear from the substitutes' bench. But the euphoria in the home ranks at the final whistle told a different story.
The Gunners had needed to exhaust emergency reserves of spirit and undoubted quality to prevail. When the rawness recedes, Norwich's players should remember that as they summon one last effort.