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Monday, February 4, 2013
Through the deadlock at Loftus Road shone many of the positive traits of Norwich City’s collective character.
It may not always be pretty, but when it functions perfectly it is a highly-effective formula robust enough to ensure Chris Hughton’s squad maintain their Premier League status. The irritation for those occasional watchers is to judge Hughton and his players on this televised offering. To do so is to arrive at the wrong conclusions.
In their best moments of the season, the Canaries have been defensively resolute and impressively economical in their forward thrusts. Be it in the enduring productivity of their set piece potential or in those sublime slivers like Anthony Pilkington’s Sunderland finish at Carrow Road after an extended bout of possession which those same detractors might suggest City are incapable of producing.
The club-record Premier League run prior to Christmas was the harnessing of both forces in a consistent seam. When one or both parts of that delicate balance are disrupted – by injury, by loss of form, by any number of other imponderables – painful days like Liverpool or Fulham are the debt to pay. Hughton refers to this equilibrium in less prosaic terms as the fine margins.
Given the stark differential in relative spending power between Norwich and QPR, the City boss should be lauded for his ability to meld a group who can compete on a level playing field. Even the best in the land have struggled with Hughton’s template. QPR fall a long way short of that, as the Premier League table testifies, but they still possess quality. Even a half-fit Chris Samba can leave a muscular imprint on games at the top. The centre back was the pivot around which Harry Redknapp will now look to build layers of the same defensive resolution that has been Norwich’s hallmark. The Canaries were not playing a side in crisis but a lavishly-assembled squad good enough to hold the champions four days earlier and win at the European champions in recent weeks.
City needed Mark Bunn at his most defiant and some desperate defending at times to repel Rangers in a frantic second period, but that in itself should provide reassurance. The fighting spirit in the camp remains undiminshed on the evidence of the last two results, despite what the manager himself termed a ‘downward spiral’.
Be in no doubt Norwich under Hughton know their limitations. They also know the extent of their ambitions. Both should be viewed as strengths when you contrast Redknapp’s scattergun approach to salvaging QPR’s season. Those who matter under Hughton’s command also know a unity of purpose, a sharing of one clear objective, does not insulate them from criticism when the wheels come off in such dramatic fashion. Or the audible demand to release the shackles; like at Loftus Road when the clarion call went out for Luciano Becchio to get his chance much earlier alongside Grant Holt.
A degree of flexibility is not a sign of weakness. Hughton may have embraced the urge to unleash the Argentine and reaped the rewards with a long overdue league win, but the City boss is not a poker player like his predecessor. Hughton prefers educated homework to guesswork; odds are meticulously assessed and caution is the default setting. But the City manager can point any who question his methods in the direction of the Premier League standings. Norwich retain a healthy advantage to those in greatest peril and with each passing weekend that only serves to increase the degree of difficulty for clubs like QPR to try and reel them back in. Frankly, the Norwich boss would be guilty of the same haphazard planning which, from the outside, appears to have undermined Rangers if he abandoned the principles which guided the Canaries through choppy waters to a position of relative comfort this far into the season.
Body language experts would have had a field day with Redknapp. The QPR chief appeared uncharacteristically downbeat in his post-match media dealings after watching his men fail to overcome the Canaries; he exuded the air of a man who had only just realised Tony Fernandes’ cheque book is back under lock and key until the summer. By then it may be too late. Points in single measures are of little use to the west Londoners; for Norwich they are extra premiums on that pre-festive insurance.
Hughton’s calm public demeanour rarely changes. Right now, he is Norwich’s greatest asset. City’s Premier League fate rests on the decisions he makes between this point forward and May. It takes an inherent conviction not to be buffeted or blown off your preferred course when those on the periphery call for change with each fresh setback. Hughton held firm during those uncomfortable early passages of the season and now again over recent times. Draws against Tottenham and QPR signal a turning of the corner and tests on the horizon that look a shade easier than facing European contenders.
Hughton himself admitted a first top flight win since Wigan on December 15 would offer even more breathing space. City had enough forays into QPR’s final third to have earned it at Loftus Road. Julio Cesar denied Wes Hoolahan with the visitors’ best opportunity in an increasingly stretched second period when he instinctively stuck out a right-hand to deny the Dubliner from close range. The Brazilian was also a match for Bradley Johnson on a rare incursion from his disciplined defensive shift alongside Alex Tettey. The Norwegian looks back to his high-tempo best following an FA Cup breather – it is hardly coincidence Norwich’s form line has bent in an upward direction as a result. Cesar also frustrated Robert Snodgrass but they were exceptions to the general thrust.
Too often the final pass or cross was lacking sufficient quality, but on this occasion Norwich’s foundations were strong. Bunn has been superb over the past two Premier League games. Javier Garrido’s underhit pass presented him with one of those nightmarish dilemmas for keepers as Jamie Mackie advanced. Adel Taarabt, a player whose gifts pale against the hyperbole, struck the penalty firm and low to Bunn’s left only for the City keeper to prevail. Bunn’s flying parry from Andros Townsend in the closing stages was arguably as impressive after Bobby Zamora’s arrival helped tip the scales in the hosts’ favour.
But Norwich stood firm, and such solidity is an enviable quality no amount of money can guarantee.