Pleasure and pain in Norwich City’s winning formula
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City retain the ability to tease and frustrate in equal measure but this was a Premier League win laced with long-reaching benefits.
Given the Canaries enduring difficulties away from Carrow Road and a worrying injury toll that left them again without their club record signing and three senior wide midfielders it was arguably less about the identity of their opponents. Crystal Palace is a foe few in or outside Norfolk expect to finish above Chris Hughton's squad in the final reckoning, but this was a far from routine.
Norwich's vibrant opening act was accompanied by a subdued, introverted encore after the interval that merely added to the anxieties of a home support who just once in a while would like to sit back and enjoy the satisfaction of watching the Canaries really put one of their Premier League rivals away. West Brom's pummelling in the penultimate game of last season which secured their top flight status remains an anomaly under Hughton's stewardship. Yet the signs were again evident Norwich possess the talent, the guile and the creativity to edge further down the evolutionary path that a record transfer outlay in the summer was designed to engineer.
Nathan Redmond's trickery and wonderfully uninhibited directness swept City forward in the early skirmishes. Wes Hoolahan justified his recall until fatigue inevitably set in as the second period elapsed. There was nothing new in the Irishman's armoury. Hoolahan remains peerless within Hughton's squad when you search for those technically-proficient operators who can switch play with clever passing and subtle changes of movement.
Hughton was right to highlight the cool touch and the awareness that effectively dragged Julian Speroni to his far post to enable Gary Hooper to sweep home a winner that was beautiful in its simplicity and clinical execution.
Hoolahan has the gift bestowed on the best; he always appears to have copious time on the ball to weave his mesmeric patterns. A deployment on this occasion to a wide area is not his optimum setting, but needs must and Hoolahan himself would rather harness his influence within a less favoured midfield role than watch from the sidelines.
Hooper was another who embellished his growing reputation in the Premier League. This latest shift contained the first real sighting of a forward who can operate with a degree of comfort away from the security of those penalty boxes where he has made a successful living at every lower level.
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One sublime piece of control just inside the visiting half that killed Jonny Howson's thumped clearance and then a swift back-heel for Johan Elmander which triggered another City counter sold a lie to the myth Hooper is merely a penalty box predator.
Elmander is another you sense must win over Norwich's support. The Swedish international does not offer the prolific goal return of Hooper or one hopes Ricky van Wolfswinkel when he returns to the fray but Elmander can still leave a mark on Norwich's Premier League season. The athletic flicked free kick that cannoned against the underside of Palace's crossbar was indicative of City's collective boldness and ambition in stark contrast to the inhibited nature of their efforts away from Norfolk. But just like West Ham last time out at Carrow Road and the trip to Newcastle, City served up half-measures. Palace emerged after the interval emboldened no doubt by Tony Pulis and a visible commitment to press the hosts' higher up the park. Coupled with the waning effectiveness of Hoolahan and the urge to protect, the by-product was a ceding of territory and possession.
The recalled Sebastien Bassong was refreshingly uncomplicated, Ryan Bennett again a willing accomplice and in full-back areas Norwich were indebted to Martin Olsson's attuned sense of pending danger and Russell Martin's appetite to roam forward in a bid to earn temporary respite from the gathering storm.
John Ruddy remained a watchful spectator for the most part, bar the odd incursion from range, but the sight of Howson and Leroy Fer dousing fires on the perimeter of his penalty area was an unexpected turn of events after early dominance.
Such a theme remains a cause for concern but it should not mask the positive shoots of recovery following a wretched period where limp away displays, a growing injury list and the wearisome topic of Hughton's future have provided a pessimistic backdrop to the search for growth.
Hughton has been castigated on a routine basis, but this was a victory for him as much as his players. The late entrance of Luciano Becchio and the vociferous backing from the Carrow Road fans rallying behind the much-maligned Argentine was a managerial masterstroke; less for the net impact of introducing the bustling striker for what he could produce on the pitch than channelling the positive energy around the stadium for those final fraught moments in pursuit of victory.
Becchio is right to feel frustrated at his limited activity, Hughton is right to use his resources in the best way he sees fit. This is not about player or manager. This is always about Norwich City and wherever you looked against Palace there were reasons for cautious optimism.