Paddy Davitt verdict: Norwich City hitting too many duff notes in Premier League survival bid
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Cruel as it was for Arsenal's pre-match entertainment to include a brass band's rendition of the 'Great Escape' it felt prophetic considering the perilous nature of Norwich City's Premier League status.
A strange serenity appears to be settling on Alex Neil and his players, given not only the composure of their display at the Emirates but the tone of the post-match soundbites. Both Neil and his players spoke with a calmness mirrored on the pitch that belied the gravity of their plight; almost as if they have come to terms with the ramifications and the worst-case scenario. It was as if Sunderland and the poisonous fallout had been purged from the system in the intervening fortnight.
Norwich did not capitulate, even when Danny Welbeck punished them for one momentary defensive lapse in an approach which evoked memories of that stout offering at Manchester City prior to Christmas. John Ruddy's late spill that day unleashed a chain of events which ended with Yaya Toure clinching victory from the penalty spot after Russell Martin had been red-carded. It is no coincidence the Canaries departed north London with the same scant reward for their labours.
The brutal and inescapable truth is they lack sufficient quality at both ends of the pitch and it is why they are embroiled in a fight for another shot at beating the odds in the Premier League next season.
We have known that since Crystal Palace's opening weekend victory, when the Eagles escaped with all three points after City were unable to add the cutting edge and defensive resolve to an encouraging first stab at the top flight under Neil. The same structural issues remain in a squad that was not adequately improved during the summer recess and for all the commendable January outlay still bears a striking resemblance to the personnel who hauled Norwich out of the Championship.
Neil opted to keep the likes of Dieu Mbokani and Steven Naismith, Matt Jarvis and Youssouf Mulumbu on the bench at the Emirates as Wes Hoolahan led a renaissance for the old guard. If fate had not wretchedly intervened at Selhurst Park to claim Timm Klose then the script may have been more uplifting - instead the absence of the talismanic Swiss defender feels the deepest cut of all after City were again exposed in central areas when Olivier Giroud rose unchallenged to direct Mesut Ozil's cross into the path of Welbeck. The England striker's half-volley clipped Seb Bassong to deceive Ruddy; it was the roughest of justice to add insult to a growing injury list, but Norwich's Premier League struggle is not a story of outside forces or bad luck, it is a tale of missed opportunity.
There was fresh evidence here, amidst a backdrop of rancour that pitted pockets of disgruntled Arsenal supporters against each other as battlelines continue to be drawn over Arsene Wenger's future. Nathan Redmond was twice denied by Petr Cech before unleashing another shot on the turn that may well have beaten the keeper but sneaked the wrong side of the right-hand post.
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Yet Norwich bravely pressed on, seeking to defy the gloomy forecasts that this is now a lost cause, a forlorn quest for survival while closest rivals Newcastle and Sunderland edge further clear. Even after Welbeck's dagger, City had plenty of promising moments in the vicinity of the Arsenal penalty area as time ticked by and Arsenal failed to add a second.
Gabriel's sliding near post tackle robbed the bustling Mbokani of a chance to test Cech again from the industrious Redmond's counter. Ruddy foiled Mohamed Elneny and Ozil with flying stops and then sought to add ballast to Norwich's desperate final salvoes inside the Gunners' penalty area.
But this has long since stopped feeling like a fairytale. It is a painful weekly dose of reality building towards a sour conclusion. But, remarkably given the decline since the turn of this year, Norwich still retain hope.
When Newcastle trooped dejectedly off the Carrow Road pitch last month not even the most fanatical Magpie could have predicted the current state of affairs that sees Rafa Benitez's boys a point clear of the bottom three. It is not fanciful to project a scenario where Norwich complete a league double over Manchester United next weekend to clamber above both north-east rivals, who may just feel a greater sense of insecurity if City can deliver an emphatic statement of intent in the Saturday lunchtime kick-off at Carrow Road.
To do that will take more than composure and control in possession, more than creating chances whilst subduing United's own creative forces. It will take more than fighting spirit and character or a willingness to embrace the challenge. It will take genuine Premier League quality, and that was again in short supply when it really mattered at Arsenal.