Paddy Davitt verdict: New Year truce or another false dawn for Norwich City?
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Derby's visit on Monday should provide further clarity whether Norwich City's Championship point at Brentford marks a new year truce or another false dawn.
Rotherham's distant visit to Carrow Road, way back on October 15, was the last occasion Alex Neil's squad put two positive league results side by side, after triumphing the previous weekend at Wolves.
Each shaft of light since has been the prelude to another descent towards the abyss. To break the cycle of decline and for Neil to stand any chance of keeping his job Norwich have to take what worked at Griffin Park and add the cutting edge which was all that prevented them ending a sour 2016 on a winning note.
A string of missed chances, largely by Cameron Jerome, coupled with Robbie Brady's red card proved an entirely fitting postscript after a 12 months sign-posted by frustration and failure, of dashed expectations and painful reality.
Neil unveiled a new-look formation and made five changes to his starting line-up from the collapse at Reading on Boxing Day. It produced a cohesive, committed performance. Those who yearn for change will rightly argue a club with Norwich's expectations and ambitions should travel to Brentford with more than just hope, but that is to downplay the crisis of confidence and the deep depression that has sucked all the optimism out of a season which started in such emphatic fashion at Blackburn.
This Norwich team still looks like a set of players bereft of self-belief and waiting for a kind break or two to set them on an upward trajectory. That clinical edge, that killer instinct so graphically absent from Jerome's finishing, is symptomatic of a side who have lost their way and need guidance to find the right path.
There was no lack of effort, no lack of urgency. Norwich created numerous opportunities and defended with a robust sense of purpose sadly lacking at Reading. They can do it. They have done it before this season but they have also shown a worrying propensity to regress; to become complacent and arrogant. To be overwhelmed by the physical intensity from less technically refined rivals, whilst Neil's apparent inflexibility and rigid philosophy, his seeming reluctance to alter the flow of a game, are routine charges. None of the above could be levelled at Brentford.
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Neil was bold from the start and only a lack of composure denied the visitors a first away win since Molineux. A first clean sheet in the league on the road since March proved some consolation. Neil withdrew Ivo Pinto and introduced Jacob Murphy. It was a tactical switch that so nearly produced a winner, but for the athleticism of Brentford keeper Daniel Bentley. Martin Olsson was introduced to provide ballast in the wake of Brady's late exit and tested Bentley again with a swerving effort.
Reflecting the scale of the downturn the final whistle sparked a sense of relief tinged with frustration. Ryan Bennett's out-stretched leg in denying Scott Hogan a clear shooting chance averted another post-mortem.
Yet there was still an audible restlessness amongst the large travelling support at the end. They, like the rest, want to believe this manager and this set of players are good enough to justify all that close-season hype and sound bites from inside the club targeting a swift Premier League return. Right now, it is about Derby. It is about a Carrow Road experience to enjoy, not endure.
The Rams' recent formline suggests they present a stiff obstacle but this is a Norwich City who should be competing with Steve McClaren's club in the promotion mix. Neil reiterated again at Griffin Park Norwich fear no-one in the Championship. It will take a consistent seam of results from here to earn that respect from friend and foe alike.