Norwich City still have no answer to the most pressing question
- Credit: Tom Smith/Focus Images Limited
The surreal nature of this damaging Premier League defeat fails to mask Norwich City's enduring problem.
It is not about playing two strikers or a certain formation or even recalling the cause célèbre that is Wes Hoolahan after a frankly wearisome transfer saga where neither party emerged truly victorious or with their reputation enhanced. They are all symptoms of a much wider malaise; one that is scarring the Canaries' bid to secure a fourth consecutive season of top flight football. Cardiff keeper David Marshall was defiant yet again facing his old club and it is no stretch of the imagination to state he has cost Norwich five league points this season with a string of quality saves. But, as his manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer put it rather succinctly after helping earn the Norwegian an improbable first league win, that is what Marshall is there to do.
Norwich must expect excellence every week, no matter the hue of the opponent; whether it is the struggling Bluebirds, who kicked off bottom of the pile, or Manchester City, who will arrive at Carrow Road this weekend top if they overcome Chelsea on home soil this evening.
That is why the Premier League is an alluring prospect. Why Norwich City were keen to join such an exclusive club and desperate to stay in it. The Premier League's financial power attracts prime talent from here and right around the globe.
Norwich must look deep within rather than project outwards for the reasons they were unable to overcome a team who had not won a league game in seven matches.
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Both Hughton himself and the squad he has melded have had their collective character routinely tested at various points of this most trying of campaigns, but a loss in such bizarre circumstances triggers more pertinent questions about a lack of self-belief or the ruthless streak required to punish teams when they are in the ascendancy.
Norwich's goal ratio this Premier League season is dire. Norwich's chance conversion, just in the abbreivated sample of two league contests against Cardiff, is embarrassing. That is not solely down to the strikers, although the sharpest focus will inevitably centre on those at the top end of the pitch.
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All the interminable debates and contradictory views stirred by City's sparse productivity do not conceal the harsh reality; Norwich spent millions of pounds last summer to address a glaring deficiency to their play but they are no further forward in efforts to embellish defensive resolution with attacking potency. No other conclusion can be drawn this far into the season and what occurred at the Cardiff City stadium offered painful fresh circumstantial evidence.
Hughton will again earn his share of criticism after Norwich contrived to squander a victory that was comfortably within their grasp before they imploded in such graphic fashion, but few dissenting voices would have objected to his decision to separate Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
Both possess goalscoring pedigree but the coupling has singularly failed to produce any real dividend so far. It is an experiment which too often saw the duo dropping deep to further over-populate congested midfield areas or else find themselves cut off as slick opponents like Everton and Newcastle made the most of their numerical advantage in the central channels of the pitch.
Hooper's most prolific spell came when he was deployed at the point of Norwich's attack with Johan Elmander offering chief support and a vital link to the Canaries' midfield.
City's tactical shape in Wales gave them a counter-punching thrust which had nullified Cardiff in the opening period and should have brought more reward than Robert Snodgrass' early opener. Hooper was far from an isolated figure when Norwich did frequently raid, with Russell Martin, Snodgrass and Bradley Johnson all prominent in the final third.
But the manner of their capitulation was deeply troubling and it is naïve in the extreme to suggest Hughton and his players would not have expected a strong response immediately after the interval.
Wilfried Zaha pounced on Hooper's square pass across his own penalty area and Craig Bellamy did the rest. Kenwyne Jones lashed home barely a minute later and the damage was effectively done. Norwich rallied in a final quarter laced with a sense of desperation that brought a string of clear-cut chances, but Marshall's obduracy allied to the visitors' lack of precision merely sparked anger and incredulity at the final whistle.
Manchester City is the last opponent Hughton or his players would pick to try and prove their Premier League credentials this coming weekend, but each fresh inconsistent episode contracts the club's margin for error.
Much has been made of a devilish Premier League fixture finale, but the Canaries face seven of the clubs in the bottom half before then.
To focus solely on the number of hurdles left or the quality of the opponents is to overlook the real issue that remains unresolved despite many millions and many hours on the training field. This group of players have now scored more than once on just two Premier League occasions since that distant opening day draw against Everton.