Frustration follows missed opportunity for Norwich City following draw with Fulham
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Ambition once again appeared the easiest commodity to sacrifice in Norwich City’s attritional approach to Premier League safety.
Much like the previous Carrow Road stalemate against Newcastle, which arrested a festive slide last month, City failed to find the answers when confronted with a mirror image of themselves. Martin Jol set up a team designed to frustrate and hope for an additional extra from the talented feet of men like Dimitar Berbatov or Damien Duff.
Chris Hughton can point to mitigating factors; none more so than the eve of battle absence of captain Grant Holt with a back spasm complaint. Hughton confirmed afterwards his plan had been to pair the skipper in tandem with recent signing Luciano Becchio in a coupling of muscular intent.
Given the way Fulham’s Brede Hangeland clamped himself onto the Argentine for the majority of this drab affair, a large degree of attacking ballast was clearly a prerequisite to try and punch holes in a resolute Fulham rearguard superbly marshalled by the towering Norwegian.
Hughton introduced Simeon Jackson and Kei Kamara from the bench in search of an alternative remedy during the closing stages. Changes which brought mixed results. Kamara certainly injected a freshness and a dynamism singularly absent in an arm wrestle where both Norwich and Fulham got something and the watching public – one could reasonably surmise – got very little in terms of pure entertainment or enjoyment.
Hughton’s reticence not to unleash the Sporting Kansas loan signing earlier than the final few minutes was entirely understandable. Two training sessions following a midweek transatlantic flight to link up with his new Norwich team-mates was hardly ideal preparation for anything more than a late cameo.
Nor should anyone overlook or excuse Fulham’s apparent lack of attacking endeavour when attempting to dissect another small but potentially vital step on the road to survival for the Canaries.
Berbatov grew increasingly detached from Fulham’s lone frontman Hugo Rodallega as the game elapsed. The Bulgarian was presumably looking for pockets of space to exploit. In truth his presence, and that of Wes Hoolahan, merely served to over-populate those central areas of the pitch.
There was one sliver of play just before half-time when the Irishman anticipated Becchio’s flick on but was surrounded by five white shirts. It was a suffocating, restrictive game where space was at a premium. Certainly for artists like Hoolahan and Berbatov who found themselves policed by defensive midfielders no doubt affronted at persistent encroachment into their territory.
With two regimented backlines stationed on their respective 18-yard lines the room for manoeuvre appeared down the flanks. City’s clearest sight of Mark Schwarzer’s well-protected goal came six minutes in when Elliott Bennett and Javier Garrido combined seamlessly to escape along Fulham’s byline before picking out Becchio who could only stab goalwards as he lost his balance at the crucial moment.
It was a brief respite from the stodginess, a rare glimmer of enlightenment. The natural instinct from both Bennett on the left and Robert Snodgrass on the opposite flank is to head inward onto their favoured sides. Bennett certainly possesses the pace and Snodgrass the guile to take their direct opponent on the outside, but City’s pattern of play under Hughton is woven around Hoolahan’s innate ability to plot paths through the minefields.
A trend that becomes more marked with the absence of Anthony Pilkington, who offers that natural width which proves so valuable in anaemic contests of this kind.
When Hoolahan is crowded out, such as here for the majority and games like Reading or Everton on the road before Christmas, City’s attacking urges become sporadically haphazard. Becchio was the unfortunate beneficiary on a landmark debut occasion for the club’s recent Leeds arrival.
City hit too many diagonal balls where the striker had his back to goal and Hangeland for company. The Fulham captain is an impressively assured central defender, but his life was made far too routine. City’s manager pinpointed this glaring deficiency during his post-match media dealings. He may have been better served addressing the issue earlier in the proceedings.
Fulham, riven with a sickness bug in the camp and a fragmented week where they had four times as many players away on international duty as Norwich, were there for the taking.
The hosts appeared content to allow Fulham’s centre-backs to dominate possession for long spells. Fulham were happy to do very little with it.
Mark Bunn’s parry from Steve Sidwell’s fearsome long range hit was the sum total of their labours. You could almost be forgiven for thinking this was a tame end-of-season duel, were it not for the fact both still have work to do to renew their Premier League membership.
And that essentially is the only measuring stick applicable for Norwich’s run-in. City had to come up with solutions to halt a stalled season around the turn of the year. Hughton and his players went back to basics and Norwich have reaped the benefits in a renewed defensive resolution underpinning a trio of consecutive league draws.
The periodic conundrum is how Hughton and his coaching staff embellish such a solid foundation with the forward thrusts that turn such hard-fought draws into priceless league victories. Becchio and Kamara certainly offer enough latent attacking threat to supplement the existing striking stocks. Becchio will score goals at any level with the right supply lines. Kamara brings an unpredictability to the mix and a raw athleticism City have lacked at the sharp end of the pitch.
That, along with the latest point, could well be the true legacies of a forgettable affair. To return from Loftus Road, as they did the previous weekend, with something to show for their considerable efforts against a club in dire straits was a step in a positive direction.
To describe Fulham as a regressive movement would be wrong. Only Aston Villa made up any significant ground on Norwich with their home win over West Ham yesterday after weekend defeats for QPR, Wigan and Reading. But there was a palpable feeling of frustration inside and outside the camp. A realisation this was a missed opportunity to put more daylight between the Canaries and the clutch of clubs beneath them.