Photo Gallery: Nervous Norwich City’s indecision is final
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Like an on-off love affair that doesn't quite make it to the altar, Norwich City still cannot fully commit themselves to another season in the Premier League.
Each passing weekend must leave supporters veering nervously from one frame of mind to another. One more point or the very occasional three eked out at Carrow Road and yes, it's all going to be all right. But follow that with another long, fruitless trip on the road and suddenly, well, we're not quite sure.
Whatever happens at Villa Park tonight, Chris Hughton's Canaries will still go into their final three matches of the season – two of them at home – with a mathematical advantage over Wigan, Aston Villa and Newcastle, and heaven only knows what psychological damage has been inflicted on Alan 'De Pardew' and his French mercenaries by the Magpies' biggest home defeat since 1925.
At the moment, City would not swap places with any of them. But their curious lethargy on their travels leaves them little room for error on home territory, and only victory over Villa or West Bromwich Albion – or possibly a point against each – will enable us to breathe a little more easily.
In truth, the Britannia Stadium, Stoke, has never been a particularly happy hunting ground, the Potters' robust style of play appearing to intimidate the Canaries year after year. It's all arms, legs, high balls and, occasionally, high boots. No wonder the pitch looks in such good condition.
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There is one corner of the ground filled by a huge electronic scoreboard, but passers-by on a raised section of road still try to catch a glimpse of the action. At least they see a fair amount of the ball, if not the players.
Stoke assistant boss David Kemp – sent to the written Press conference after manager Tony Pulis went into Greta Garbo mode – defended his team's physical approach on the basis that: 'The stadium is full up every week.'
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One might also point out that public executions used to pull in tens of thousands, pre-dating football with the sale of souvenirs and roast chestnuts, but they were not a particularly edifying spectacle.
Given the recent history of this fixture, it was never going to be a classic and a fifth 1-0 scoreline in the past seven meetings between the two clubs was no great surprise.
Referee Anthony Taylor may at times have felt he was trying to control a schoolyard scrap with numerous personal squabbles breaking up what little flow there was to the contest, and some ugly challenges mixed in with some fairly shameless play acting.
The Canaries in fact started fairly brightly and went close on seven minutes when Russell Martin swung in a cross from the right and Robert Snodgrass headed over.
Bradley Johnson then poked a shot over the top after a flick from Kei Kamara, but Stoke began to find their feet – and leave them in a few dangerous places – as the half progressed.
A glancing header from ex-Canary striker Peter Crouch and a volley by Cameron Jerome that struck team-mate Steven Nzonzi – both courtesy of crosses by the busy Charlie Adam – raised the temperature a little, as did some reckless challenges, the first by Nzonzi on Kamara, the second when Jerome pursued a poor backheader by Alex Tettey and raised his boot against goalkeeper Mark Bunn, and the third when Crouch caught Tettey and left him hobbling.
All three players earned bookings, as did Norwich skipper Grant Holt for a clumsy barge into the back of Robert Huth, but at least both sides reached the break with 11 men.
Norwich had been a shade unfortunate in that opening period not to be awarded a penalty when Stoke skipper Ryan Shawcross appeared to handle a Snodgrass corner, unnoticed by the officials, but it was they who were caught cold by the key move of the match, seconds after the restart.
Perhaps fittingly, it was Scotland international Adam who proved to be the matchwinner. Crouch beat Ryan Bennett in the air to head on a long through-ball from Shawcross and, as Sébastien Bassong grappled with Jerome, Adam picked up the loose ball and, taking it in his stride, drilled a low shot past Bunn.
Crouch missed a golden chance to make it 2-0 on 62 minutes when a mistake by Bassong enabled Adam to cross into the six-yard box, where the beanpole striker kicked thin air, perhaps distracted by Tettey's arrival at his side.
Hughton made three changes in the final 25 minutes in a belated attempt to inject some much-needed energy, but the only further threat to the scoreline came from an Nzonzi shot, beaten away by Bunn, and a looping header by Kamara from Ryan Bennett's long throw, just clearing the bar in the dying seconds.