Same old sad story in Norwich City’s Premier League survival quest
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Norwich City’s battle for Premier League survival is also the story of a fight they are waging from within.
"Norwich have backed themselves into a corner and they may need the type of flourish they produced 12 months ago to extricate themselves."
The laboured nature of their efforts against Stoke City has a been a depressing constant in a season of dashed expectations fuelled by that commendable club-record transfer outlay.
City look no further forward in the search for genuine evolution and, on the evidence of Stoke and too many other days like them in recent months, they appear to have regressed. It is less the fact they are once again embroiled in a scrap that is unlikely to be resolved until the final moments of the season but the realisation any optimistic shoots are periodically crushed by brutal reality.
Norwich have routinely failed to build on the best results and most encouraging performances of their third consecutive top flight season. You can look outwards to the undoubted quality of other Premier League rivals and the continuing financial imbalance between Norwich and the majority. They may well be contributory factors, but the Canaries are doing very little to help themselves and that is inexcusable.
It is not enough to simply point the finger at Chris Hughton or his players. Culpability must be shared corporately, but there can be little dispute should City emerge with their Premier League status intact this campaign will be portrayed as one of missed opportunity.
Stoke was merely another frustrating link in the chain. Norwich were second best for the majority of the opening period as they struggled to deal with the obvious threat of Peter Crouch, who even in the tail end of his career is a worthy adversary. Crouch’s aerial advantage belies his technical ability and willingness to constantly drag Norwich’s centre backs both deep and wide.
The tide only turned when Crouch’s influence began to wane and Wes Hoolahan’s imprint on a fractious contest grew. Hoolahan’s personal story perfectly encapsulates Norwich’s collective travails. The Irishman was eased from the stage to the stalls for large swathes of this season in the search for sustained growth, before his isolation was cut short in the elusive pursuit of attacking productivity.
Even with Hoolahan back in harness, Norwich carried only a fleeting threat to a Stoke backline who were largely untroubled. The 31-year-old is a graceful footballer thrust into the headlines for all the wrong reasons since the turn of the year, but the Dubliner alone can not shoulder the burden of addressing Norwich’s offensive mediocrity. Nathan Redmond is enjoying an extended run in a line-up that contains a pair of aggressive, attack-minded full-backs in Russell Martin and Martin Olsson yet there is still no sense of dynamism or directness to City’s play. Norwich’s goal when it arrived after a forgettable hour sprung from a predictable source; Robert Snodgrass’ teasing free-kick despatched by Bradley Johnson, but that quest for a degree of extra insurance eluded Hughton’s side once again.
Asmir Begovic produced an acrobatic flying save to claw out Redmond’s venomous hit yet the records will show it is now 16 matches and counting since Norwich scored twice in one shift. That is a damning statistic and an indictment of Hughton’s methods and his players’ output.
City’s enduring difficulties in front of goal have placed an onerous burden on their capacity to resist at the opposite end. John Ruddy’s growing clean sheet count is a testament to the success of that policy but Norwich can not justifiably expect to clinch survival on the hard labour of their backline and a midfield screening unit.
Such stress has produced cracks in the edifice against Aston Villa, where they imploded in graphic fashion, and in gifting Stoke a way back. Seb Bassong was the fall guy with a rash misjudgement punished by Jon Walters from the penalty spot but there is precious little sign of any progress in trying to alleviate those pressures further forward.
Norwich’s lack of potency ultimately scuppered a fertile recent period when wins at Cardiff and West Ham were squandered by their profligacy. Now, by Hughton’s own admission, they have slipped from that standard in the last two Premier League games and that can only be recipe with a sour ending.
The stilted nature of their response when Walters’ red reduced Stoke to 10-men for the last 17 minutes must have been particularly painful watching for the home fans - one concerted period bringing into sharp focus the debilitating trends which have undermined much of Norwich’s work this season.
When the moment arrives and the odds tilt in their favour they appear unwilling or simply incapable of seizing the opportunity and easing their passage to a fourth season of Premier League football.
A point against a typically obdurate Stoke, who retain all the gnarled attributes of the Tony Pulis era, by itself would not be calamitous, but in the context of Norwich’s perilous position in the table and the lack of a cohesive forward strategy you could feel the air of resignation at the final whistle. Norwich have backed themselves into a corner and they may need the type of flourish they produced 12 months ago to extricate themselves.