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Paddy Davitt, EDP Sports Writer
Monday, December 10, 2012
Norwich City’s truly epic Premier League win at Swansea was a show-stopping riposte to those detractors who castigate Chris Hughton’s men as one-dimensional functionaries.
Damaging early season defeats necessitated a defensive sea change. Hughton brought in new personnel, but it was as much a new mindset that bred a pragmatic counter-attacking philosophy to underpin a consistent run of tightly-contested games that brought those memorable wins over Arsenal and Manchester United, allied to hard-fought points at places like Everton and Southampton.
Yet the charge persisted; fuelled in part by Hughton’s honest appraisal that the Canaries needed to develop a greater edge to embellish their solidity. The first 45 minutes against Sunderland offered an encouraging step in the right direction; the fluidity of movement that led to Anthony Pilkington’s recent match-winner underlined the offensive quality at Hughton’s disposal.
But could Norwich prosper away from the secure confines of Carrow Road against a club sweeping all before them on their own ascent into the upper echelons? The answer was emphatic.
The Canaries stunned the hosts with a three-card trick prior to the interval. Swansea raised the stakes and then threw in all their chips in a fearsome onslaught towards the hour mark that evoked memories of Norwich’s stubbornness in front of the Kop at Anfield last season.
Then, as now, they survived. Only this time around they responded in kind, with Robert Snodgrass capping a virtuoso display with a free-kick that even in real-time visibly appeared to sap Swansea’s collective energy.
It was less a win, more irrefutable proof Hughton’s Norwich can go anywhere, anytime, against anyone, and resist. In that regard, surviving Sunderland’s stress test the previous weekend was perfect preparation for what lay in store on Welsh soil.
Norwich’s prowess from set pieces earned them a ridiculous 3-0 half-time advantage at a ground where only Everton had previously left victorious this campaign. The visitors were full value for their improbable lead after bravely engaging Swansea on their own terms.
Norwich dictated the early passing rhythm of this quite breathless contest before the Swans gradually established a measure of control without the penetration. Gerhard Tremmel foiled Bradley Johnson from Snodgrass’ corner with less than a minute gone. The recalled Jonny Howson thudded a shot against the base of a post, then Tremmel grasped Snodgrass’ impudent flick. Norwich’s ambitious endeavour was laced with an inner confidence borne of a long unbroken run of results.
Steven Whittaker and Sebastien Bassong left their posts to supplement Norwich’s forward motions – capitalising on brittleness in the home ranks in the process – but the defining image of the game came after Grant Holt had profited from fresh disarray to head a third a minute prior to the interval.
The camera panned to a stunned Michael Laudrup as he sunk deeper into his seat at the front of the home dugout. Swansea’s Danish manager was a wondrous player in his own right for Barcelona and Real Madrid. He must also be some motivational speaker; such was Swansea’s transformation from the timid, one-paced build-ups of the first period, where too often they were guilty of an over-reliance on width to try and circumvent Norwich’s defensive rigidity. A pedestrian policy that brought only limited success. Danny Graham’s towering header cannoned back off Mark Bunn’s bar from the excellent Jonathan de Guzman’s lifted centre, but Norwich had largely managed to secure the rights to attacking potency.
Swansea reverted to type on the resumption. The deep-lying Michu and de Guzman, Swansea’s creative fulcrum, combined to drag the Welshmen within touching distance of a truly remarkable comeback before the hour mark. Backed by a raucous home support, Norwich retreated ever deeper towards Bunn’s goal as the maelstrom gathered pace and Swansea probed incessantly through central areas.
Even the most ardent member of Norwich’s travelling support could have been forgiven for fearing the worst as the action intensified at the opposite end of the stadium. There was a rawness, an edge to the battle amplified by the atmospherics swirling around the Liberty as Swansea poured forward with apparent impunity.
But the defining moments of the game were yet to come. Itay Shechter slammed high into the roof of Bunn’s net, only for referee Howard Webb to rule out the apparent home equaliser for Michu’s illegal aerial challenge on Norwich’s keeper prior to the substitute’s acrobatic close range finish.
Holt raced into enemy territory on a relieving burst moments later. Ashley Williams’ clumsy tackle hauled the skipper to the ground; an act entirely in keeping with the centre-back’s fragile display. For as good as Swansea looked at the sharp end of the pitch, Laudrup must have cast an envious glance or two in the direction of Norwich’s resolute backline; shorn of the likes of John Ruddy, Michael Turner and Ryan Bennett yet still capable of resistance even under the most extreme pressure.
Snodgrass steadied himself before unleashing a left-footed free kick that spiralled over a porous home wall and beyond Tremmel’s sprawling dive to his left.
Swansea tried to respond in the minutes that remained, but the intensity had evaporated; the fire had gone out. Michu’s strike on the turn slithered wide of Bunn’s far post. Chico Flores decided, wisely, attack was the best form of defence, but his wayward hit sailed over. Norwich had taken the hosts’ heaviest blows, survived a standing count or two, and come back even stronger.
Michu’s second of the game and 13th goal in all competitions since his summer switch from Spain triggered a tense final stoppage time minute or so. But what was 60-odd tortuous seconds for the visitors set against what had gone before.
Hughton saluted Norwich’s fans at the final whistle. It was the men on the pitch who deserved all the plaudits. By all means portray this victory in terms of three more league points, in that ever-widening gap to the current bottom three or the extension of an impressive unbeaten run now into double figures.
But those statistics fail to capture the essence of the club’s first Premier League away win of a season which continues to flourish from faltering beginnings. This victory was all about heart, courage and the growing maturity of Hughton’s Norwich.