Norwich City’s confidence dented by Sunderland
The wounds may be fresh but Norwich learned a valuable lesson last night that will stand them in fine fettle for the Premier League and FA Cup battles ahead.
Paul Lambert's squad arrived at the Stadium of Light full of confidence and bullish optimism fuelled by one defeat in their last ten encounters. Sunderland brutally delivered a reminder the top flight remains an unforgiving place if the Canaries ever slip below those high standards.
That the lesson for Lambert was delivered by his managerial mentor will be particularly tough to digest for the City boss – who has proved during his Carrow Road stint just what a great teacher Martin O'Neill is. City were undone by a fearsome early burst from the Black Cats that rocked Norwich back inside the opening 30 minutes when Fraizer Campbell and Stephane Sessegnon grabbed goals to furnish their excellent general link up play. Dani Ayala's unfortunate own goal after the restart ended any lingering hopes of an unlikely comeback for the visitors. Sunderland were impressive; Norwich for once were poor, but this result should be viewed in its proper context. City have shown plenty of times during Lambert's tenure that they can respond to adversity – Bolton this weekend offers the first chance for redemption.
Lambert rang the changes again to his starting line-up from the weekend's FA Cup fourth round success at West Brom. John Ruddy made an expected return in place of Jed Steer after the youngster's heroics at the Hawthorns. Adam Drury dropped out of the matchday squad with Kyle Naughton was immediately restored to the left-back slot after being ineligible for cup duty under the terms of his loan agreement with Tottenham.
Lambert also opted to revive the midfield diamond but Anthony Pilkington and Elliott Bennett were forced to settle for a place on the bench with Andrew Surman and Bradley Johnson back in, while Wes Hoolahan was deployed in his familiar role at the point in support of Grant Holt and the recalled Steve Morison. O'Neill handed Campbell his first start under the Northern Irishman after a goalscoring cameo in the weekend FA Cup draw against local rivals Middlesbrough.
City's hardy band of supporters making the 10-hour pilgrimage were in good voice before kick-off prior to a classical crescendo drowning them out as the players emerged through a guard of photographers awaiting the arrival of the two track-suited managers. Lambert was first to take his position at the front of the away dugout followed by O'Neill who greeted his former skipper with an understated handshake.
Seb Larsson delivered an early warning of his undoubted quality from set pieces with a dipping free-kick well collected by the diving Ruddy. The City stopper was called on again to pat away Campbell's near post glancing header from James McClean's probing cross in an upbeat start from the hosts. Sessegnon intelligently threaded a ball through three Norwich defenders for Larsson, but the former Arsenal man's finish lacked the composure of the instant kill.
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Michael Turner robbed Morison; prompting a sharp inquest between the Welsh international and Grant Holt but Zak Whitbread was alert to clear the danger. Sessegnon displayed impressive upper body strength to keep Whitbread at bay, which forced Bradley Johnson to take matters into his own hands – Larsson's whipped free-kick guided away by Russell Martin.
City's counter-attacking prowess, so evident at West Brom again over the weekend, fashioned the first real chance on 12 minutes – Morison's flick latched onto by Holt but Simon Mignolet blocked the skipper's half volley prior to Surman lashing wildly over.
Livewire Campbell robbed Johnson in midfield but Whitbread demonstrated again what an excellent reader of the game the big Texan is with a sharp intervention that brought a painful whack from Craig Gardner which earned the West Midlander the opening yellow card.
Sunderland continued to dominate territory but without the ferocious intent of the early sparring, City were gradually establishing a measure of equality in terms of possession – until Campbell struck in stunning fashion.
Jack Colback's lift inside Martin looked innocuous until Campbell took one touch to control the bouncing ball before unleashing a wonderful dipping volley from fully 25 yards that flew over the stranded Ruddy. Norwich tried to patiently play their way back into it with Surman harshly adjudged to have held down Phil Bardsley after City constructed a decent bridgehead on the edge of the home penalty box.
Lambert's side were rocked again prior to the half-hour mark when Sessegnon sparked and finished a rapier burst – nutmegging Johnson in midfield to feed Campbell who picked out his ally with a sublime cross despatched six yards out. Ruddy could only stand and berate his defenders after the former Paris St-Germain midfielder was able to leap between two green shirts for a free header. Sunderland surged forward again buoyed by the two-goal lead, but Ayala hacked behind with the visitors now showing clear signs of distress.
O'Neill's men were totally dominant in that key central midfield area – allowing Campbell to terrorise City's backline at will.
Ruddy parried from the former England U21 striker but the assistant's flag was already up. Wes Hoolahan's peripheral shift typified City's struggles to escape Sunderland's suffocating pressing – the Irishman's speculative volley on 38 minutes his first meaningful entry.
Gardner dipped inside Surman but Ruddy was able to watch his hanging shot fly wide. Martin advanced but dragged off target in a positive sign from the Canaries prior to the interval but Morison's poor control had spurned the clearer sighter of Mignolet's goal seconds earlier.
Surman spurned a half-decent opening on the restart when Mignolet grasped at the second attempt, but Ayala's deflection from Bardsley's driven cross left City facing a mountainous task. Lambert introduced Pilkington and Bennett in a bid to pep up the visitors – Pilkington powered down the left to produce an inviting cross Morison glanced a yard wide. Campbell exited to a stirring ovation from the home fans on 74 minutes after emphatically demonstrating he could be a key player in the O'Neill revolution.
Colback moved forward into space but dragged across Ruddy's body with the venom long since evaporated from the hosts' purposeful play.