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Monday, November 19, 2012
Mighty Manchester United were sent packing on a day when Norwich City scaled new peaks in their Premier League evolution.
Frankly, it would be a travesty to focus on United’s perceived failings; or the absence of the talismanic Wayne Rooney, allied to the inability of Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez to reprise their recent predatory brilliance.
This was not about United. This was about Norwich City. Less an astute game plan, more an all-encompassing crusade backed to the hilt by a raucous home support which stood four square behind the boys in yellow and green in a symbiotic show of Norfolk defiance.
The passage of time will inevitably dull the senses; blur that sharp, technicolour focus of wonderful memories for all those in attendance.History will package this duel in the shape of dry statistics. Decades from now the archives can never hope to fully illustrate Norwich’s dominance in the key areas of the battle. Nor convey the meritorious value of a rare modern-day victory against the 19-time champions of the land.
Sir Alex Ferguson is a managerial great. His enduring legacy a bastion of excellence and durability, but the fractious Scot was magnanimous in his concession speech. Norwich wanted it more. Norwich defended for their lives. Norwich counter-attacked with purpose. All the traits you associate with the Red Devils during his quarter of a century at the helm.
City’s 2005 heroes no longer need stand alone in the Premier League era. Magnificent as that previous top flight win was, it came wrapped in the suspicion Ferguson had taken Norwich lightly with his team selection.
Rooney, Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy all started on the bench at Carrow Road that April evening. Rooney was absent again, but this was United’s heavy artillery ranged against Hughton’s vintage.
A team unbeaten on the road in the Premier League since an opening day to forget at Goodison Park.
Hernandez knelt on the halfway line before kick-off in silent prayer. Alex Tettey sunk to his knees in joyous relief seconds after the final whistle. In between came fresh proof of Hughton’s transformative powers.
The scale of the metamorphosis from the defensive rabble at Fulham or Liverpool or Chelsea to this teak-tough, battle-hardened, drilled unit is staggering.
Arsenal and now Manchester United, two giants of the domesitc game synonymous with attacking flair imbued by two elder statesmen, have together been unable to pierce a Norwich backline superbly marshalled by John Ruddy, and on this occasion a defence recruited entirely by Hughton and his astute backroom team during the summer.
Steven Whittaker’s impact has insulated Norwich from the absence of one of the squad’s most consistent performers in Russell Martin.
This time last season, such defiance in the face of frightening foes would have been unthinkable without Martin’s reassuring presence. Javier Garrido has the pedigree and the class to flourish in such exalted company. The Spaniard’s attacking instincts supplement Norwich’s propitious forward motions.
The precision of his first time cross for Anthony Pilkington’s match-winning leap on the hour mark was a thing of beauty; matched by the midfielder’s balletic timing and athletic prowess to glance a header up and over Anders Lindegaard.
Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner, on current form, are a tribute to the manager’s ability to meld raw material into precious gold dust. Bassong is the cultured foil to a man of the soil in Turner.
Nothing illustrates the upturn in City’s Premier League fortunes since that salutary trip to Chelsea more starkly than Turner’s own personal renaissance into a genuine top flight centre back. With each passing game, each extra notch on the unbeaten run, each clean sheet, you detect a group of young men endowed with that most priceless commodity.
Confidence. Norwich collectively exude a calmness without the ball and a missionary zeal when they strike on the counter.
United were afforded all the time they wanted in and around their own penalty area, but incursions over the border brought a swift response. Bradley Johnson and Tettey are the muscular heartbeat as Norwich hunt in packs. Space is denied, opponents forced wide; the premise is a simple one. City have enough aerial strength in the mountainous form of Ruddy or Turner or Bassong to cope with any delivery from the flanks.
Ferguson left his seat for the first time ten minutes from the break to implore Ashley Young to tuck in centrally. For a club so heavily reliant on width to unpick opponents it was a tactical concession to his opposite number; albeit Ruddy required agility belying his frame to parry Young’s goalbound right-footer at his back post in the shadow of the interval after Norwich had failed to deal with van Persie’s initial corner.
Hernandez could only flutter on the periphery whilst van Persie dropped increasingly deeper in search of meaningful work to alter the tide of a contest where the tone had been set inside the opening seconds when Grant Holt and Ryan Giggs collided in central midfield. The decorated Welshman appeared to take exception. Words were exchanged but Holt’s body language suggested no backward step would be forthcoming. The dialogue continued at the next break in play. The message from the home ranks resonated loud and clear. Respect but no fear.
Pilkington’s sublime header sparked euphoria and a sense of unease in equal measure. Ferguson has constructed a dynasty built on late drama. Paul Scholes and Danny Welbeck injected urgency, but Norwich should have added a second to spare Ruddy his stoppage time service when Steve Morison’s incisive cameo created a chance for Jonny Howson to race clear, only to drag wastefully wide of Lindegaard’s far post. Ruddy came to the Yorkshireman’s aid; tipping over Bassong’s miscued header before gathering Anderson’s hit from the edge of his penalty area at the second attempt fractions before Scholes was able to bail out Ferguson.
City’s recent revival appears to defy conventional Premier League wisdom. Wins over the established order are viewed as optional extras where beating your expected rivals is the traditional route map to safety.
Norwich under Hughton appear to relish upsetting the odds. They look on course to do the same again come next May.