Norwich City squander another shot at the high life
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
This was Norwich City's most dispiriting Premier League defeat of the season.
Hammerings against the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool can always be legitimised by the financial disparities that exist within the pecking order amongst the elite. Aston Villa at Carrow Road earlier this season, with all the Machiavellian sub-plots that accompany a reunion with Paul Lambert and his familiar backroom team, was at least notable for a genuine commitment to attack. Even Hull City on the road, and Norwich's inability to overcome a newly-promoted club despite a numerical advantage for an hour on Humberside, looks less of a missed opportunity with each passing week the Tigers' underline their competitive credentials.
But a struggling Fulham, shorn of their best players through injury and a new, inexperienced manager at the helm, marked virgin territory in Norwich's unerring ability to squander the initiative. City were even given the benefit of a fortuitous opener to set them on their way to another positive uplift when Gary Hooper's deflected strike spiralled up and over David Stockdale. Fulham's stand-in keeper and his fragile visiting defence looked vulnerable to each fresh home incursion during the early sparring.
Stockdale and Aaron Hughes dallied long enough for Johan Elmander to gather and cut-back for Robert Snodgrass, but the blunt incision allowed Hughes to intercept. Stockdale and Sascha Riether then contrived to turn an intended clearance into an assist for Hooper's second of the afternoon. but the prolific frontman attempted an ambitious clip with the outside of his right foot that spiralled wide with Stockdale stranded.
Even in the competitive landscape of the Premier League this seemed a ridiculously routine afternoon that would end with Hughton's squad ensconced in the top half of the table approaching the half-way point. What transpired was more frustration for a home support who had read this script already against Villa, Cardiff and arguably the opening period against West Ham.
Norwich must earn the right to accumulate points in the Premier League - Hughton knows that better than most - but there is something particularly galling in watching opponents leave Carrow Road with a helping hand in their endeavours.
Scott Parker's urgings shook Fulham out of their early lethargy and Norwich out of the comfort zone. Hughton spoke afterwards about stalled momentum and it was painfully evident within one 90 minute outing. Patjim Kasami emerged as the creative counter-point to Parker's manual toil. Steven Whittaker's miscued clearance was dragged the wrong side of John Ruddy's far post. The Swiss international then crafted an inviting cross that Damien Duff wasted. Ruddy's intended punt slammed against the upper body of Parker and the assistant referee intervened to correctly halt Fulham goal celebrations for a clear handball, but it was no surprise when the Cottagers' did level. Nor was it was a revelation Kasami was the source, although the disintegrating Norwich wall which allowed his free kick safe passage will irk the meticulous Hughton.
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City tried to raise the tempo before the interval but Nathan Redmond's pointed display of frustration towards his team mates was in itself revealing. Norwich had let Fulham back into a contest that was there for the taking in the opening quarter and everyone inside the ground knew it.
Leroy Fer thundered forward after the interval with two close range headers that required timely interventions from Riether and Stockdale. Elmander was convinced he should have had a penalty for an apparent shove, but these were slim rations from the home side following the resumption.
Adel Taarabt slid a shot straight at Ruddy after Michael Turner was unable to anticipate the trajectory of Kieran Richardson's flighted pass. Sebastien Bassong threw himself in front of Sidwell's attempted strike with Fulham sensing a late winner. Even second half subsitute Wes Hoolahan was required to man the barricades, in conjunction with Ruddy, to thwart Hugo Rodallega.
It was frantic stuff from a home side who looked ill at ease.There was little of the cohesive defensive resistance displayed on Wearside just before Christmas; this was just desperate individual acts of interventionism.
Parker and the Fulham midfield looked far more energetic that their direct opponents, who appeared physically off the pace and naïve in the decisive moments. Parker was fortunate to escape punishment for a scything challenge through Ricky van Wolfswinkel, which appeared no less brutal than Wes Brown's red card offence at the Stadium of Light, but there was little doubting his willing appetite for the battle.
Parker's match-winner revived memories of Ross Barkley's hammer strike for Everton in these parts on the opening day of the campaign. Ruddy may have had to dive despairingly to his right instead of his left on this occasion, but there was almost a fatalistic sense of the inevitable when the ball left Parker's foot. City's efforts in the intervening period since Barkley's show-stopper have been fitful and sporadic. That is a depressing cycle that must end.