Paddy Davitt verdict: Norwich City’s toxic mix stunts Premier League survival chances
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Like much that has gone before this season Norwich City's pulsating Premier League duel against West Ham defied explanation.
Alex Neil's men remain an enigma. Firing blanks at a shambolic Aston Villa one week, able to cut loose against Liverpool and now the Hammers at Carrow Road. Capable of winning at Old Trafford for the first time since 1989 against, admittedly, a Manchester United who bear no resemblance to the dynasty Sir Alex Ferguson built, but then able to capitulate at Newcastle and Bournemouth. Strong enough defensively to win three games out of four over the festive period but inhibited in a five-game losing league run which holed them below the waterline prior to the Hammers' visit.
When the dust settled on another remarkable episode Norwich had made enough marginal gains on their relegation rivals to clamber out of the bottom three again on goal difference. Stay there until the end of the season and this campaign of epic highs and savage lows will be a success, but this latest instalment illustrated once again the ride will be thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.
Norwich squandered two Premier League points from another position of relative strength midway through the second half. Add those to the two they let slip at Upton Park deep in stoppage time and perhaps many more besides. Norwich conceivably should be looking down on the strugglers with a degree of detachment. Instead, the margin for error is measured in a goal or two to third-from-bottom Newcastle.
Norwich's insecurities and limitations have consigned them to thrash about in deeper waters with their relegation rivals; lurching at various phases between ambition and circumspection, deference to bullish obstinacy.
Both faces were on show here. Neil made it clear in the build up one of the by-products of that painful Villa Park defeat was a commitment to embrace the old, traditional values that propelled him into the job and the Canaries out of the Championship, before fanning such early season optimism. City's players, in the pre-match words of captain Russell Martin, had also bought into this policy shift; so too it seems must those who follow. Norwich is not for turning now. Whatever happens between this point and the final reckoning at Goodison Park on May 15, City aim to remain firmly on the front foot.
Few surely were arguing when Robbie Brady thundered a shot past Adrian before Wes Hoolahan calmly guided Steven Naismith's deflected effort beyond the Spanish keeper.
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Not for the first time this season the hosts were simply unable to withstand the visitors' power surge. After Liverpool overwhelmed a compliant Norwich last month West Ham accepted a similar invitation. Victor Moses was afforded the freedom of the entire City half to leave Timm Klose trailing in his slipstream in the move that led to Dimitri Payet's goal. The Hammers' most influential playmaker, arguably one of the best in the Premier League, was then left unattended two minutes later to roll in Mark Noble who crashed an unstoppable shot beyond John Ruddy.
It was brilliantly incisive from the visitors, it was more of the same from the Canaries. Ambition without a cold-headed pragmatism in the heat of battle. It is a toxic mix. Norwich must have expected an onslaught when Slaven Bilic introduced the imposing figure of Andy Carroll, the raw power of Emmanuel Emenike and the sheer pace of Moses. City were pounded and pummelled in the aftermath of Noble's leveller. Emenike lost his balance with only Ruddy to beat, Carroll bullied Norwich's centre-backs and Payet, having been largely anonymous, was a constant threat.
It is to City's credit they survived the tornado and could have snatched the win deep in stoppage time. Given the plots that continue to unfold in a Premier League season like no other, it would hardly have registered as a murmur if Norwich had prevailed.
There is so much to admire about this Canaries' side when they play with confidence and attacking zeal but the frailty and the vulnerable streak when they are on the back foot is another character trait. Should Norwich afford the likes of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez the same generous space on the counter to wreak havoc at title-challenging Leicester City then there will only be one outcome. Marry a residual willingness to resist with that potent creativity we saw again against West Ham and they may have a formula to carry them to safety.