Pragmatism with panache holds the key for Norwich City
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Norwich City's control of the ball is a key tenet of Alex Neil's philosophy but controlling their emotions could hold the outcome to a fraught Championship promotion race.
This, in the end, was one of the more routine episodes since the Scot's arrival, but there were still perilous passages to navigate set against the backdrop of another weekend of seismic unpredictability in the second tier.
Norwich eventually subdued an in-form Nottingham Forest to profit from league defeats for fellow contenders Watford, Middlesbrough and Derby County.
City were measured and patient, to a frustrating degree prior to Jonny Howson's breakthrough in first half stoppage time on a landmark outing for the midfielder, in a collective effort which added punch to the panache missing against the likes of Wigan, Derby and Huddersfield.
Howson has many games left to overhaul Wes Hoolahan in the list of City appearance holders, and this latest shift was arguably one of the Irishman's finest in Norwich colours.
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Hoolahan was everywhere, a bundle of creative energy and intelligent movement typified by the burst and then visionary pass for Howson to open the scoring.
The Dubliner's nerveless penalty, after Cameron Jerome's outrageous back heel had illustrated the soaring confidence in the home ranks, was the trigger for a rather premature carnival atmosphere to sweep around Carrow Road.
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Hoolahan grazed the outside of a post with a left-footed curling effort that deserved a fourth for the incisive nature of the approach work in the midst of a fertile period when the Reds may have felt compelled to query whether the Canaries only had 11 on the pitch, such was the cohesive thrust to their attacking motions.
But this is Norwich and this is the Championship. John Ruddy could only parry Jamie Paterson's swinging hit at the feet of Chris Burke, who guided the ball past the grounded keeper to bring City's party to a juddering halt and spark an uncomfortable passage which served as a reminder just how treacherous the passage to promotion has become.
Norwich's epic winning run under Neil merely earned them a front row seat but with each passing failure to fully convert their dominance over Championship rivals there was a gathering sense the enormity of the opportunity unfolding had dawned on Neil's squad.
City's play in recent weeks contained the control without the killer instinct.
Lewis Grabban's ill-timed injury exit undoubtedly contributed to a visible loss of momentum but City's efforts lacked the self-assurance and composure they had shown in dismantling the likes of Ipswich, Wolves and Watford.
It returned with a vengeance on home soil once Hoolahan and Howson had ploughed a profitable channel in the last meaningful act of the first half – although City were indebted to Ruddy's earlier shot-stopping prowess to deny Michail Antonio when Forest looked to raid on sporadic counters.
But in the aftermath of Burke's riposte as the Canaries appeared set to canter to the finish line, Neil's men regressed to their worst traits; frailty and self-doubt took hold and an emboldened Forest sensed such nervousness.
Antonio started to look like the player who had sunk Norwich at the City Ground and who arrived in these parts with a reputation as one of the Championship's most potent operators on current form after his virtuoso strike to beat Rotherham days earlier.
Neil alluded to it in his post-match words; Norwich were masterful for all bar that worrying interlude. It may be unrealistic to expect total dominance against a club harbouring genuine play-off ambitions, but the Scot and most inside Carrow Road rightly expected the Canaries to navigate a smoother passage to the final whistle.
Perhaps its churlish to dwell on a facet that, in the final analysis, proved an irritating interlude rather than a major drama but the stakes are so high and so is the scrutiny, both on Norwich and their promotion rivals over this run-in.
The close proximity in points and even goal difference between those at the top end underline it is small margins that will decide the final outcome; not even from game to game but within periods and passages of these remaining tussles.
That is why Neil opted to highlight Forest's only concerted spell of dominance.
Norwich have the potency but they need to harness a pragmatic streak to defend a position of relative strength, earned through the fluidity of their forward motions against a team who had lost only one of the 10 games since Dougie Freedman replaced Stuart Pearce's failing regime.
City also have to offer definitive proof the formula is effective against those toiling lower down the standings, with Easter assignments against Brighton and Sheffield Wednesday.
Recent history tells us Norwich have failed on the only measure which really counts at this stage, and cracking that code will pave the way to the Premier League.