Photo Gallery: Norwich City face all together different ball game at Stoke
PUBLISHED: 09:11 05 March 2012 | UPDATED: 16:04 05 March 2012
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Stoke City 1, Norwich City 0: The Canaries were brutally reminded the Premier League is not all high culture. It also caters for less refined pursuits.
This shift in the Potteries was as tough as any on the club’s varied tour of humbler League One outposts. Tougher, given Tony Pulis has recruited a band of brothers who possess undoubted quality interspersed with the toil and work ethic that Norwich routinely faced in the third tier.
Those who congregate behind the Canary cause may seek to celebrate the differences. There are undoubted similarities. Both managers have a set of players who have bought into the figurehead’s philosophy. That much is obvious by the relative success measured in results and continual development.
Both have a support base passionate and proud of the men chosen to represent their city, their county. The means of delivery may radically differ; the end game is unquestionably the same.
Stoke have plenty of detractors. No doubt a few more in another magnificent turnout from Norwich’s away support who watched the Canaries surgically pummelled right from minute one when the excellent Matthew Etherington delivered a pinpoint corner underneath the shadow of John Ruddy’s cross bar.
Pulis’ brand of football would have the handkerchiefs out at Real Madrid quicker than a Lionel Messi masterclass. But it is mightily effective. Norwich knew exactly what to expect, especially after Stoke had served up a fresh offering the previous weekend when Peter Crouch towered above Swansea’s defence to despatch Ryan Shotton’s throw.
City’s core defensive triumvirate of keeper and two centre backs are all prime physical specimens. For the large part Crouch and Jon Walters were subdued aerially. The goal when it came owed more to the craft and guile of Etherington – and confusion from the match officials who failed to settle a difference of opinion to Norwich’s satisfaction over a disputed throw-in.
Paul Lambert’s men have adapted superbly to top flight football since those early, uncertain weeks. Manchester United were given the sort of fright that defines title-winning campaigns – but Stoke present a unique Premier League obstacle.
Newcastle’s Demba Ba and Swansea’s Nathan Dyer both had plenty to say after their first brushes with the Canaries this season. Neither were over-complimentary regarding City’s perceived robust style of play. Norwich’s muscularity pales into insignificance set against Stoke’s uncomplicated template.
Lambert’s side have played pure technical passing teams like Swansea, Arsenal and Tottenham. Granted, against the Champions League heavyweights from north London they were found wanting, but a double over the Welsh underlined they had the weaponry and the intelligence to find a solution. Against Chelsea and Liverpool they came up against some truly world class players.
Household names with global reputations, but City magnificently stood firm when the pressure was at its height. Norwich survived a ferocious first half onslaught down both flanks at Anfield.
The Potters can stoke the fires like the famous Reds – but with an uncompromising undercurrent. Pulis’ men are battle-hardened, nasty, gnarled. And they keep on coming. Midfield is an optional extra at the Britannia; playmakers and passers a luxury on this evidence. Hence David Fox’s omission from the start you suspect for a fixture the Stoke-bred player would love to have put his individual stamp on. Jonny Howson was thrown into the maelstrom alongside his former Leeds’ team mate Bradley Johnson to aid the acclimatisation process.
Tough enough to make your Premier League bow after three months out; tougher still for it to come in these bear pit surroundings. Stoke’s fan base unfurled a giant banner before kick-off that travelled two sides of the ground. On it the words, ‘12th man loud and proud’. Every throw-in opportunity was greeted with the sort of roar most other sets of fans reserve for corner kick opportunities. Little wonder given Pulis’ side have copyrighted the aerial thrust as a weapon of choice.
To label them one-dimensional would be unfair. Not with temperamental talents like Etherington and Jermaine Pennant operating in tandem. But multi-faceted they are not. When you have a 6ft 7inch targetman, the element of surprise is transparent. Zak Whitbread and Elliott Ward sought to suffocate Crouch’s space whenever the ball arrowed towards Norwich’s penalty area. A tactic that worked on all bar one first half occasion when Shotton dispensed with the long throw to link with Pennant before clipping a cross that eventually ricocheted back towards the former England striker. Ruddy was brave to smother at point blank range. The type of stop Norwich’s keeper has routinely produced at various stages in a stellar personal campaign at this elite level.
City’s number one did not deserve the fate that befell him in the game’s defining act. Etherington’s laser-guided hit squeezed through a gap at his near post. The sheer velocity too much for Ruddy to react in the fractions of a split-second required at close quarters. Pulis offered a defence afterwards when he suggested Ruddy may have tried to hedge his bets for the percentage ball fired across his goalmouth.
Robin van Persie’s match-winner hours earlier at Anfield had beaten Pepe Reina at his near post – another Premier League keeper of immense talent. Perhaps Ruddy and Norwich had a stronger defence. One based on clear evidence.
Whatever Norwich’s deficiencies in allowing Etherington free reign to settle a forgettable affair, you had to sympathise with Lambert for the equally culpable role played by referee Oliver in the defining act.
The young north-easterner, who – to employ diplomatic language – has previous history with the Canaries, was recently promoted to the Fifa list of officials. Oliver has been branded as one to watch. Much of how he tried to let a difficult game flow at the Britannia was admirable, but just as players and managers are judged on the big moments, so should Oliver and his officiating team.
Elliott Bennett’s sliding challenge squirted the ball against Marc Wilson before it rolled out of play. Oliver indicated as much – both in real-time and verbally to the Norwich manager as they headed for the changing room. Yet he was prepared to defer to his near-side assistant stationed a considerably longer distance away.
Oliver’s indecision was compounded by Norwich’s defensive hesitancy. Lambert’s men are rightly judged by the highest standard in the Premier League. The same should apply to the officials. Oliver is inexperienced, but he showed a lack of conviction to stick to his gut instinct.
That is not to absolve the Canaries. The visitors had defended stoutly for three-quarters of a raw-boned contest. The response to adversity was muted. City looked unusually anaemic in attack as Stoke’s athletic backline kept Grant Holt at arm’s length. Lambert introduced Aaron Wilbraham to supplement a forward unit that Simeon Jackson had joined at the interval, but Asmir Begovic enjoyed a far more comfortable afternoon than his Norwich counterpart.
The Bosnian was a dominant figure in the closing stages when the visitors belatedly pushed into opposition territory, but too often launched crosses from central areas as Stoke intelligently squeezed space down the flanks under Pulis’ touchline exhortations.
Norwich had been forced to prioritise defence over attack. Such a stamina-sapping feat of endurance appeared to have the negative effect of neutering their usual probing forward thrusts.
Holt had cut an isolated figure before Jackson’s arrival as Stoke set about their long ball mission with religious zeal to pin the Canaries back. Given the rare circumstances, this may well go down as one of Norwich’s more resolute defensive displays this season.
At best, it would have earned them a draw. Fates were to conspire against them, but defeat at Stoke does not define their season any more than losing to Manchester United at Carrow Road. It merely serves to illustrate there are few hiding places in the Premier League. Not that Norwich appear in need of any.