Paddy Davitt verdict: Norwich City still hold an enviable hand in Premier League relegation poker
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Buried beneath all that euphoria from a thrilling Premier League win against Newcastle was the hope and gathering expectation Norwich City could surge ahead in the survival stakes at Crystal Palace's expense.
Buoyed by an upturn in results, a resurgence in belief and a sense of unity and purpose, Alex Neil's squad had the chance to move seven points clear of closest rivals Sunderland, courtesy of a quirk in the fixture list.
Norwich seized the day at both West Brom and at home to the Magpies, but squandered an invitation to lift the Selhurst Park curse and must now prepare for a titanic tussle against the Black Cats.
Sunderland's failure to capitalise on Norwich's stumble yesterday against Leicester lightens the mood considerably. Yet it is no exaggeration to state what transpires at Carrow Road this coming weekend could send both clubs spinning into vastly different orbits.
The multi-billion pound new broadcast deal and the transformative impact it could unleash hangs heavy over a game which will dwarf Newcastle's recent league visit.
Football is still about passion and spirit and the joy of a stoppage time winner against Rafa Benitez's strugglers. Alas it is also the sting of a lacklustre offering against the Eagles and the worrying sight of Timm Klose leaving a ground on crutches after jarring his left knee. But it is increasingly about the balance sheet. It is why Norwich can go out in January and spend millions on the likes of Klose and Steven Naismith in a bid to survive and in time flourish at the top table.
Norwich could justifiably point to a contentious first-half penalty incident, where even the spiky Alan Pardew conceded Damien Delaney was fortunate to escape for a shove on Matt Jarvis. City could dwell on the untimely exit of the talismanic Klose and all the potential ramifications regarding a prolonged absence from duty. Neil, to his credit, refused to offer either as mitigation. Norwich simply failed to rise above the suffocating air of a tense duel.
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The parallels he drew with West Brom were pertinent. Norwich manufactured a scruffy goal at the Hawthorns and married it to defensive discipline. City's attacking thrust at Palace was fitful and anaemic in a mediocre contest. Jason Puncheon's sublime curled finish bent around the imposing frame of Seb Bassong and into John Ruddy's far corner was enough to ease the Eagles' clear of a late relegation skirmish and stunt Norwich's nascent revival.
It felt like an opportunity spurned; a game for the taking. For long spells prior to Puncheon's intervention, Palace looked tentative and hesitant as they chased a first league win on home soil since December 12. City were compact and largely resolute in dealing with a steady supply of deliveries from either flank, but they failed to truly test a jittery Wayne Hennessey.
That was a greater source of frustration at the final whistle than a contentious penalty incident or Klose perched on his crutches at the mouth of the tunnel.
Pardew promised an atmosphere bristling with intimidation. It was nothing of the sort. It was anxious and fractious as home players struggled to find any rhythm. Only the return of former loanee Patrick Bamford roused the boo-boys on a day when Norwich were too compliant.
Yet just as beating Newcastle did not mark a watershed in the club's struggle to survive, a drab affair against the Eagles is not the signal for the pessimists to hold sway now.
Sunderland's visit was always going to be pivotal. More so after fresh defeats for the entire bottom four. Norwich have been here in recent times and found a way to overcome north-east rivals.
Neil and his players, along with those home supporters who will cram into Carrow Road again on Saturday, have risen to the challenge and found a way. Whether the news on Klose's injury is good or bad, whatever noises or bullish statements emanate from Wearside over these coming days, however many times you hear about Sam Allardyce's unblemished top flight relegation record or the predatory instincts of Jermain Defoe, Norwich must find a way.
This is not a fight anyone inside or outside Carrow Road would willingly embrace, but it is the one in front of them now.
The nerves and the tension, that nauseous sensation in the pit of the stomach, they are forces to be tamed. Allardyce's squad and Sunderland's fans will feel the same in the days and hours ahead. This is no time for self-doubt. This is the time to deliver.