Norwich City’s battle for Premier League survival is given a cup boost
Beating Tottenham was not just about League Cup progress for Chris Hughton. Nor was it really about earning a quarter-final showdown with Paul Lambert's Aston Villa. It was all about re-emphasising his road map for Premier League survival.
Hughton believes the togetherness shown by those who went into battle against Spurs and the boys he left on the sidelines is a priceless commodity they will need to demonstrate again in ample measures today against Stoke at Carrow Road.
'We should not underestimate what that win meant for the squad,' he said. 'Even though we made changes it is very much a squad game and we realise we have to be playing at that level to get results. With the top teams when they have off days they can produce goals out of nothing.
'We have to make sure we keep that level of performance. The ones that weren't involved were in the changing room before the game, some were around at half-time and certainly all of them were there at the end of the game. The win was not about the 11 who started the game, but those who weren't involved.
'They were delighted for guys like Steven Whittaker, in his first game, and Jacob (Butterfield) in his second and David Fox who has not figured this season. Sometimes it is a big win that can set something off. Arsenal gave us a really good lift and consequently the Aston Villa game, where we should have won, and they carried that on again.'
Both those notable league and cup scalps over bitter north London enemies were founded on defensive discipline singularly lacking during the worst outings of Hughton's early City reign.
'If I look over the season we had three awful days and on those we got punished,' he said. 'The team is a little bit more consistent in terms of selection and that enables you to be a little bit more solid. Against that type of quality they can really hurt you.
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'Tottenham have such good rotation and they played the game at a little slower pace, which allowed you to get into shape, but you know because of the rotation if they get the ball into important areas they can do some damage.
'Yes, probably in those two games we had to concentrate more on defensive shape and making sure we weren't too easy to break down. But on top of that you have to have your good moments of keeping the ball. Wes (Hoolahan) coming into the team of course is something that if you have a consistent base in the middle of the park and you become a harder team to break down then it is all about getting opportunities at the other end.'
Hughton knows Stoke will test that fine balance again with their aerial prowess and directness.
'They mix their game up,' he said. 'For as many goals and passages of play that will be direct there will also be some great wing play, good individual play and they have a striker in Peter Crouch who can score all types of goals.
'You have to be prepared to mix it with them. They have wingers who love to get crosses in and they are very good at set plays. They are a big team and you have to be able to cope with that – and it is not just the physical size of your own team.
'Sunderland went to Stoke last week and managed to get a draw with a team that on average wasn't a particularly big side. It is about being well-organised and being able to compete with them.'
The Potters may still suffer from an image problem, despite continued top flight membership since 2008, but Hughton is in no doubt those in the know value Tony Pulis' stellar achievements over the past decade.
'There is a good feel for him personally within the game,' he said. 'I think he is appreciated for the job he has done there. If you look at where they are now compared to perhaps a few years ago, nobody at the start of the season ever speaks about them in terms of fighting against relegation. The aspirations are very much to become a middle of the table and even a top 10 club.
'What they are is a very
well-established Premier League team now. I don't think anybody expects anything different against Stoke, home or away. They have had a lot of the big teams already and some of their results against those have not gone as well as they would like, but they have been close games.
'They have brought better quality in every year. They have a way of playing they know very well and I am sure they will have another good season.'
Hughton insists Norwich could do a lot worse than seek to emulate Stoke's success story.
'They are an excellent model. Going back to perhaps the early years in this division after getting promotion it is normal you have a few tough years,' he said.
'They have improved every year and when they can bring in the likes of Michael Owen, albeit he hasn't had a regular spot, he is someone they probably could not have brought in six or seven years ago.'