Norwich City responded emphatically to fresh adversity at Sunderland
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Adversity has a wonderfully uplifting effect on Chris Hughton's Norwich side. Sunderland is just the latest Premier League opponent to find out the hard way.
Martin O'Neill left the stage to a cacophony of vitriol from the home hordes. The Northern Irishman's magic dust appears in short supply for his current posting. O'Neill's expensively-assembled team failed to put away a Canaries' unit shorn of a man for an hour. That bordered on a criminal abdication of responsibility from the Wearsiders, and the majority at the Stadium of Light were in no mood to let O'Neill or his under-performing players forget it.
Deep reserves of character are woven into the very fabric of Hughton's Norwich; the defiance, the will to resist evoked memories of a similarly spirited response at Swansea earlier this season. City had surged into a three goal lead at the Liberty that looked barely enough to secure a draw until Robert Snodgrass' sublime free kick settled frayed nerves. In different circumstances, that rich seam of obduracy was evident yet again. Norwich may have played a part in their first half downfall – whatever the relative merits of Mark Bunn's contentious red-card and Sebastien Bassong's subsequent penalty concession – but they were entitled to feel aggrieved when Danny Rose clearly handled Russell Martin's driven low cross in the final quarter.
The Tottenham full-back was a marauding presence in the corresponding league fixture at Carrow Road. Here he was thrust centre stage for different reasons and reliant on the charity of the same officials who had punished Bassong in the penalty box prior to the interval. The fact Rose was forced back towards his own goal by Martin's attacking adventure spoke volumes for the spirit and resolve of Hughton's side in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Elliott Bennett dragged wide after breaking free of the defensive barrier City were forced to erect around Lee Camp in the second period. Grant Holt's heavy touch coaxed a brave diving challenge from Simon Mignolet, with Sunderland's defence flat-footed, that was to earn the Norwich substitute a yellow card. Given the prevailing inconsistency displayed by the officials Holt may well have had cause to fear an even worse punishment as he lunged to recover the ball.
The returning Steven Whittaker marked his late cameo by extricating himself from the attentions of two home defenders before rolling an inviting ball across the six yard box which Holt was agonisingly unable to anticipate.
Camp was a virtual spectator - such was the degree of protection centred around Michael Turner and Bassong who more than most may have felt culpable for the precarious position Norwich found themselves in. Camp proved a solid last line of defence, but the threat from range was sporadic. Craig Gardner's piledriver was confidently tipped over, Sebastian Larsson's tame effort indicative of a lacklustre personal shift and Stephane Sessegnon screwed a swivelling strike wide. It was a poor return for a side given not one but two lifelines after Wes Hoolahan's opener had rewarded the visitors' composure.
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Where Norwich exuded cohesion, Sunderland seemed a disparate mass of individuals. O'Neill's touchline mannerisms remain hypnotic, but the body language was laced with frustration. Gardner's wayward pass in the final minutes that sailed into the home terraces triggered a wave of disapproval. O'Neill merely stood transfixed with hands on head, unable to alter the tide of this contest and perhaps Sunderland's imploding campaign.
Norwich will take so much more from a severe examination. The draw edged them further away from danger and above the likes of both Newcastle and West Ham. League places as much as points are crucial at this late stage of the proceedings when each fresh peak scaled in the standings provides an extra layer of insurance.
Manchester United is the only club in their last seven Premier League games to get the better of Hughton's squad. That is a robust form line that provides succour for the tests to come. Camp is likely to replace the suspended Bunn for the resumption of hostilities at Wigan following the international break.
Bunn threw his gloves to the ground in disgust as he exited the stage barely 30 minutes into this match. Turner's intended header back only offered encouragement to Danny Graham as Bunn opted to race from his penalty area, but the bouncing ball spiralled up and into a chest region protected with his arms. Referee Foy was swift on the scene and quick to brandish red. The natives had bayed for blood, but Hughton was right to caution afterwards Bunn had given the official a decision to make.
Bassong only had partial grounds for an appeal. His intended chest control from John O'Shea's clip reared up and against his left arm. Gardner's slot was clinical.
Camp was forced to go full length to claw out Larsson's clean hit but Norwich survived to the interval before flourishing after the resumption as Sunderland visibly wilted. Bradley Johnson and Jonny Howson roamed imperiously across central midfield. Turner and Bassong's reading of the danger and positional sense cut the supply lines to Steven Fletcher and Graham whilst in men like Bennett and Snodgrass, Kei Kamara and later Holt were never isolated figures. It was a remarkable feat of endurance. It was fresh evidence - should any have doubted - that Norwich will fight for their Premier League future. The Canaries had the pride in their collective performance that was worryingly absent from O'Neill's men. Despite Bunn's red card, the sacrificial loss of the influential Hoolahan to make way for Camp's arrival and the penalty award, Norwich were perversely inspired. Sunderland looked cowed by the opportunity; the timidity of their forward play encapsulated by Adam Johnson's peripheral presence on the margins.
The occasional England international has the pedigree but on this evidence Sunderland's disrgruntled fans were right to question whether he has the stomach for the battle. That is not a charge you can lay at Hughton's Norwich. They are at their most vibrant when they appear most vulnerable.