Photo Gallery: Norwich City give Bolton a masterclass in crisis management
Norwich City 2, Bolton Wanderers 0: Norwich City positively relish defying footballing convention. By this stage of the Premier League season, Paul Lambert's squad were widely tipped to be down amongst the dead men.
Scanning forthcoming fixture lists for every available point to try and scramble back above the waterline; feted for their plucky, courageous attempts to buck the prevailing trend.
Bolton at home would have been a fixture targeted by many to deliver an all too rare victory. A tense affair to revive fading hopes – perhaps one to prolong the inevitable relegation drama.
That it was Bolton who left Carrow Road mired deep in trouble tells you everything about Norwich's campaign to date. Tense it may have been. Exhilarating it most certainly was.
Norwich under Lambert have had a propensity to surprise, to hit the heights innumerable times during his tenure.
The Canaries have copyrighted moments of sublime footballing theatre; this 90 minute episode bordered on the ridiculous. Injuries and tactical reorganisations come with the territory for those who prowl the technical areas.
City's boldness at QPR over the festive period paid handsome dividends when Lambert and his coaching staff went three at the back to get Wes Hoolahan on the same pitch as Anthony Pilkington and Elliott Bennett to try and create supply lines for Steve Morison and Simeon Jackson.
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Norwich had the numerical advantage following Joey Barton's early red card, but the game at Loftus Road was still in the balance. Morison's late match winner from Bennett's knockdown was a footballing affirmation fortune favours the brave. Bennett himself finished that particular day operating at left-back as City looked to plug holes; to preserve the points.
The former Brighton wide player's versatility was illustrated starkly again here. Against Bolton necessity was the mother of invention. Within the space of 20 minutes, Norwich lost both the centre-halves who had been ever-presents in an unbeaten run ended ignominiously at Sunderland.
A limp display so out of character with the collective zeal that has characterised the club's top flight assault. Defeat at Martin O'Neill's-rejuvenated Black Cats by itself was of no great cause for concern.
Not when Norwich have gravitated around the top 10 for the majority of the past few months. Nor the margin, with Fraizer Campbell and Stephane Sessgnon a pervasive menace. The Canaries had competed manfully against Chelsea in their previous Premier League outing.
The contrast in the north-east is what would have irked Lambert. City have been beaten by better sides this season; they have rarely been out-fought, out-battled as they were on Wearside.
Yet the fact such sobering experiences remain the exception rather than the general rule is ultimately what should keep Norwich in the Premier League. Fresh from defeat and the early injury exits of Dani Ayala and Zak Whitbread, the excuses were already in place. The hard luck stories composed.
Bolton arrived in Norfolk buoyed by a goalless draw against Arsenal and on the back of impressive recent wins against Liverpool and Everton. Coyle had matched Lambert with a late deadline day move for another young England U21 starlet in Watford striker Marvin Sordell.
Few outside the county may have argued with the inevitable outcome. Those hailing from inside the border share a different mindset. Russell Martin's form at centre back helped resolve an earlier season injury crisis at the heart of Norwich's defence and earned an international recall to the Scotland set-up.
The sight of the 26-year-old entering the scene from the bench for his 100th senior club outing to replace the stricken Ayala was hardly a cause for alarm.
Whitbread's departure and the attendant reshuffle were liable to have Lambert reaching for the Alka seltzer. Kyle Naughton was shunted inside alongside Martin, leaving an exposed right flank filled by Bennett. Both excellent young prospects, both unproven deployed in alien positions in the white heat of Premier League battle.
If this Norwich vintage is cut in the image of their manager, the response to adversity was predictable. Lambert dispensed with the long tracksuit overcoat on the coldest day of the season. Sleeves rolled up, he proceeded to cajole and urge with even greater ferocity than usual from the touchline. Ian Culverhouse was never far away.
Norwich's double injury blow checked encouraging early momentum. Simeon Jackson was a counterpoint for a vibrant opening quarter which had gone some way to rectifying the Stadium of Light showing.
The Canadian's play was laced with a confidence and a belief from recent goals and regular appearances. Jackson offers that speed of movement Norwich lack when Grant Holt and Steve Morison lead the line; a variety to offset the raw physical threat offered by a muscular front two.
The frontman linked intelligently with Anthony Pilkington in the early sparring. The ex-Huddersfield man is another seemingly enjoying his football to the full. The 23-year-old was a revelation in the formative weeks of the campaign – his first goal anchoring that maiden win at the Reebok in September – but Pilkington had to settle for a support role when autumn passed into winter.
A switch to the right adds an extra dimension to his play; cutting inside to offer extra defensive protection or foraging for openings to test exposed central areas.
The duo combined to tee up Holt who peeled off his marker to direct a volley at Adam Bogdan. Jackson then profited from Andrew Surman's persistence but dragged his angled strike well wide before failing to return the favour after escaping Bolton's offside trap.
Surman's venomous strike to break the deadlock in the second period rendered his early miss a mere footnote. With Bogdan to beat seven yards out the cultured midfielder's right-footer thudded against the crossbar from Holt's instant set up.
Bolton visibly grew in confidence. Emboldened by the escape and the apparent frailty now surrounding John Ruddy. Owen Coyle introduced his battering ram of a centre forward in Kevin Davies shortly after the interval.
It was only a surprise he waited that long. Coyle has built a reputation for aesthetically pleasing football. There was little devil in the detail with the arrival of the ex-England international.
Namesake, Mark, was freed from patrolling David Fox to probe and prod in advance areas as Bolton exerted greater control of territory and possession. City had been pushed back into counter-attack mode. West Brom would testify to their prowess.
Ruddy patted away David Ngog's dig at his near post before beating the ball clear under intense pressure from Chris Eagles. Martin Petrov lashed an angled half volley across Ruddy's six yard box. Bennett's dive foiled Kevin Davies six yards out.
But the seeds of Norwich victory were sown in Bolton's greater ambition.
The Canaries had the pace of Jackson, the guile of Surman and Pilkington and the visionary passing of Fox and Wes Hoolahan to exploit space down the channels.
Jackson swivelled past Tyrone Mears, but curled too close to Bogdan. Bolton's surge subsided as quickly at it had gathered. Hoolahan lifted over. Jackson picked out Surman who reacted quickest to guide a difficult volley underneath Bogdan's bar.
Holt contorted his body to try and divert Pilkington's cross, but it spun up and over from four yards.
Norwich kept pushing; little thought of protection for an exposed backline. Petrov tested Ruddy from 20 yards with a vicious half volley the big man parried over his bar. Martin felt able to leave his defensive station to play a major part in the decisive strike.
Bogdan could only parry his shot from Pilkington's initial short pass.The keeper's spill was ruthlessly punished by Pilkington who was on the scene in a split second.
Norwich had sensed an opportunity in the closing stages and taken it with brutal efficiency. Bolton had been presented with an opportunity through a freak early injury blow for the Canaries. And spurned it.
In the final analysis, that could well be the difference between staying the right side of the survival line.