Photo Gallery: Norwich City show they’ve learned Premier League lessons well
Norwich City 2, Wolves 1: For Norwich City this was ultimately reaffirmation of their Premier League status. For Wolves, the life force is slowly ebbing away.
Green shoots were visible at Newcastle after the grind of Stoke and the toil against Wigan. Overcoming Terry Connor's Wanderers pushed the Canaries to the precipice of scaling that psychologically important 40-point safety mark.
For a set of supporters well versed in stomach-inducing tension over the closing weeks of a season, this most memorable of top flight campaigns will carry no such caveat.
A daunting looking fixture list can now be approached with a sense of reassurance. An inner confidence that was visibly apparent from the moment Grant Holt veered around Wayne Hennessey to cancel out Matt Jarvis' opener.
Right up until the moment the skipper lunged at Michael Kightly in a desperate late bid to rectify his own mistake. From then on, the mood music changed. Defensive resolve was needed to protect a win fashioned by a vibrancy underpinning Norwich's attacking thrusts largely absent during the club's recent fallow period; a span so brief in duration it should testify to the stellar achievement of reducing the run-in to a hunt for elevated league placings and greater prize money.
City's squad has had to demonstrate copious amounts of heart, spirit, courage in adversity. Norwich have had to dig deep when required at various stages since surviving a late push for a Wigan winner at the DW Stadium back on the opening day.
Anfield remains the template for defiance, when John Ruddy's magnificence embellished a defensive display that deserved tangible reward. Ruddy and Norwich resisted again on Merseyside before Christmas when Everton pounded their lines before Leon Osman's clever flick diverted Royston Drenthe's thunderbolt with City on course for all three points.
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The same scenario played out once more at Molineux days later. Simeon Jackson's instant impact from the bench sparked Wolves into a ferocious onslaught that brought a Ronald Zubar equaliser – but no winner.
Defensive frailty is not a charge you would level at Paul Lambert's men. Nor the ability to score goals. Only Blackburn have more outside the current top six.
The number crunchers recently ranked Norwich top in total miles covered per game. Lessening that statistic is arguably the key to Premier League longevity. Endurance and fitness are admirable qualities, but coughing up cheap possession and failing to retain the ball against quality players only increases the degree of difficulty.
Consigning Wolves and their dignified manager one step closer to the abyss was not the most impressive aspect of City's latest victory. It was the manner with which they controlled possession and with it territory after Holt's leveller had checked Wolves' vibrant early start.
Given the innumerable factors needed in perfect alignment to secure wins in rarefied company, it may be too simplistic to state Jonny Howson's presence over the past two games appears to have had a regenerative effect on his new employers.
The ex-Leeds man will be fresher than most after his three month injury lay-off. Howson previously sparkled in a losing effort in the north-east. Here he was central to the overall success; roaming from left to right, demanding the ball from his team mates, driving City onto the front foot and into enemy territory for sustained periods.
Howson's midfield urgings freed David Fox to sit in that quarterback role and set the tempo. Howson's energy helped create time and space for Wes Hoolahan to profit in a reshaped formation that put the Irishman in closer proximity to Jackson and Holt. City's skipper was the forward pivot – the hold up option around which Lambert opted to assemble a cast list smaller in stature, but full of attacking invention.
This Norwich side is never going to be a Swansea. To state the obvious is as much a reflection of the managerial beliefs of the sharp, young operators at the respective helm of both clubs. Nor would you want them to be, in truth.
City's flexibility, as Roberto Martinez alluded to recently, has been their collective strength. Pragmatism not romanticism should be the sole guiding principle. Yet there was much to admire in the swagger and the neat passing patterns City weaved around a Wolves side overly-reliant on the more conventional threat offered in wide areas from Jarvis and Kightly.
Neither is facing Wolves anything like the formidable presence of duelling with a Manchester City or an Arsenal, who Norwich play again before this season runs it course.
That in itself should provide a source of fascination in the absence of real league-defining drama. To watch just how far City have evolved and how successfully they can cope with the biggest and best now Howson appears fully integrated.
Norwich needed to adapt to survive. Howson is among a raft of new players to arrive since Lambert took over to inject fresh blood in a bid to cope with each fresh challenge on an ascent of vertical proportions. Yet this win owed as much to the old.
Lambert does not like the term, but Holt unquestionably has a talismanic effect on those around him. Steve Morison has proved an invaluable addition when you view his contribution in the round, but Holt is now at the peak of his career powers.
To label him a one-dimensional aerial threat is lazy and inaccurate. In the last month alone the swivelling half-volley to peg back Manchester United and the opener here lifted gently over Hennessey's towering frame sold a lie to lingering misconceptions.
Holt had to bide his time earlier in the season, but City's number nine came back fitter, leaner, sharper. The hunger for goals was never in doubt. Now he has the athletic edge to maximise his gifts.
Holt does not just score in large quantities. He plunders in key moments. Connor was left to rue Wolves' inability to build on their hard-fought lead when Jarvis advanced onto Kevin Doyle's inadvertent flick to slot past Ruddy. Norwich were level with their first attack on the restart. The bubbly Jackson let Elliott Bennett's touch run across his body before capitalising on Sebastien Bassong's crooked offside line with a cushioned pass finished stylishly by Holt.
The interplay that led to Norwich's penalty encapsulated all that was good about City. The ease of movement between a string of players and the ball as Wolves' central midfield was bypassed by Howson and Hoolahan to free Holt. Stephen Ward bravely blocked the initial thrust.
Eggert Jonsson's arm prevented Hoolahan's goalbound strike testing Hennessey. Holt's assassin's instinct won the ensuing battle of wills from the penalty spot. Kyle Naughton's half-time introduction merely accentuated the positive, ensuring Kightly was swiftly consigned to a peripheral figure.
Howson and Hoolahan were now the dominant forces. A further goal after the interval which Norwich's possession merited, and Holt's late dismissal would have been a footnote. Bassong's superb awareness denied him a hat-trick when Holt looked odds on to despatch Bennett's cross. The skipper will hardly need telling in the cold light of day his rash attempted tackle on Kightly brought unwanted complications after an earlier booking for tangling with Roger Johnson. Hindsight is not a commodity you can draw on in the heat of battle.
In attempting to correct his own error, Holt's exit was the precursor to an uncomfortable final few minutes for the Canaries. Zak Whitbread was adjudged to have felled Steven Fletcher inches outside the home penalty box. City's wall held firm to deny Sylvan Ebanks-Blake. Hoolahan's wayward inside pass turned a Norwich thrust into a Wolves counter.
Nenad Milijas blazed over before Norwich's playmaker turned to face the wrath of his manager. He hardly needed telling. If City had succumbed after dictating for most of what had gone before those questions from recent games would have grown audibly louder.
Not perhaps regarding Premier League safety, which looked secure even prior to this latest contest. More in their enduring ability to absorb the lessons from such setbacks. The final whistle brought positive answers on both counts.