Photo Gallery: Norwich City left to reflect on fine margins following defeat at Newcastle
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Fine margins were always going to decide Norwich City’s Premier League future. This game hinged on a strip of Newcastle turf not much bigger than the matchball itself.
Demba Ba swept home Hatem Ben Arfa’s sumptuous tracer bullet of a pass past the advancing John Ruddy to secure all three points. Andrew Surman’s attempted clip over the sprawling Steve Harper hit the Magpies’ keeper and rebounded back into play. Two moments frozen in time in an almost identical spot inches inside the penalty area in front of the Gallowgate hordes.
The same supporters who had to dive for cover to avoid becoming collateral damage in Papiss Cisse’s woeful spot-kick miss in first half stoppage time after Steve Morison was adjudged to have levered Mike Williamson under the ball.
Score that and Norwich may have been dead and buried, given their difficulties in front of goal. Miss and there was potential for a momentum shift. Two minutes after the restart Wes Hoolahan’s vision and craft set Surman free in behind, but Harper won the duel. Norwich struggled to carve out another chance, let alone one in that same bracket.
Chris Hughton showed his pragmatic side again with a reshuffle in forward areas, but the mood music remained flat. Fulham highlighted defensive inadequacies, so Hughton methodically set about repairing the damage. Sebastien Bassong arrived and was paired in tandem with a rejuvenated Leon Barnett. Norwich now look impressively solid. Here again, there was only flashes of danger from a Newcastle frontline that plundered 29 league goals last season on their march into Europe.
Hughton’s response to attacking deficiencies, amplified by the goalless affair last time out against West Ham, was similarly decisive.
Simeon Jackson may feel rightly aggrieved he was relegated to the bench alongside skipper Grant Holt. The Canadian international had capped some effervescent free-running displays with one of the two goals Norwich have notched in the Premier League.
But Hughton saw the bigger picture. The artistry of Hoolahan paired with the industry of Morison. The Irishman was a welcome addition for those who believe his unique skill set should always be indulged within the team framework. Hoolahan was the bridge between Morison and a midfield that retained the craft of Surman and Robert Snodgrass, allied to the protection afforded by Bradley Johnson and Jonny Howson.
Hoolahan’s first meaningful involvement came with head, not foot. A diving near post header that appeared to brush Steven Taylor from close range after Javier Garrido and Surman tricked their way past James Perch. From the resulting corner, Bassong crumpled to the floor. Initial treatment diagnosed a potential hamstring problem. Bassong’s race was run; a cruel blow for the centre back making a less heralded return to the north-east than his boss. Hughton sat impassively, hands clasped whilst Michael Turner prepared to enter the fray barely eight minutes in. Such is the life of a football manager. A week’s work aimed at nullifying what Hughton identified as potentially the best strike force in the league lay in shreds before Ba or Papiss Cisse had broken sweat.
City showed admirable resolve to maintain their encouraging start. Just like at Tottenham when they fell behind after testing Brad Friedel’s athleticism to the full, they refused to submit. Harper left the safety of his line to punch clear Johnson’s probing cross. Hoolahan offered a mobile target; working in the pockets of space around Morison. Surman and Snodgrass were disciplined foils; tucking well infield to try and suffocate the dangerous Yohan Cabaye and disrupt potential supply lines to the front.
Newcastle’s black and white army sat in silence. They needed an inspirational spark. On this occasion it was provided by another French midfielder. Ben Arfa had the class to spot Ba’s run and the technical ability to thread a pass. The Senegalese did the rest with a confident roll beyond Ruddy. City battened down the hatches to withstand a minor buffeting in the immediate aftermath. Garrido tracked back to nullify Ben Arfa. The ex-Marseille man had swapped the periphery for centre stage. Newcastle continued to arrow diagonal aerial balls towards Norwich’s new central defensive partnership as if probing for signs of inherent weakness.
Surman and Hoolahan sprung a counter. Snodgrass rose unmarked to direct a goalbound header Williamson cleared, with Harper beaten. City’s lack of goals has not been the only common theme of the opening weeks. Snodgrass may well have rendered that statistic irrelevant with his growing catalogue of near misses. But the threat was an encouraging one for the pocket of Norwich fans tucked high in the rafters.
Hoolahan and Snodgrass combined in a prolonged spell of keep ball that freed the overlapping Russell Martin but City’s skipper wastefully struck the first man. City’s lack of precision in the final third was again a cause for concern.
Surman was penalised for apparently wrestling Vurnon Anita to the ground inside the Newcastle penalty area. The sense of injustice was still festering when Morison eased Williamson out of the way at the opposite end. Referee Swarbrick had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, but Cisse’s penalty travelled many a row back.
City should have surfed that psychological boost for the duration of the half-time interval. Hoolahan pivoted and slipped in Surman in one sublime movement just two minutes after the restart, but Harper spread himself to smother. An anguished Hughton spun on his heels at the front of the technical area. The gifted Surman’s Norwich career past and future will bring goals of a much higher tariff, but on this occasion he was found wanting.
Hoolahan remained Norwich’s creative spark. The Irishman has few peers in the City squad for his appreciation of time and space. Another drifting run took him behind enemy lines where Garrido was on the same wavelength, but Snodgrass was crowded out as he moved menacingly onto the cut back.
Yet for all Norwich’s early second half promise, Newcastle carried the greater punch.
Ben Arfa unleashed a strike destined for the bottom corner before Ruddy was down smartly to push the shot around his left-hand post. Holt and then Jackson were introduced in a bid to inject some zest into City’s forward urgings, but it was the abrasive Cheick Tiote who left a lasting impression. Which should say everything about Norwich’s Premier League output so far.