Paddy Davitt verdict: Bad habits return to haunt Norwich City
Â©Focus Images Limited www.focus-images.co.uk +447814 482222
This was going to be different. This was going to be the Premier League season Norwich City attacked with relish and gusto. Now it just feels like another farewell tour.
"The claustrophobic occasion was seemingly too suffocating to play with any genuine sense of attacking flair as Sunderland retreated deeper and deeper."
The blame game is futile, the hunt for scapegoats premature and mis-guided. There remains a route to survival, as Norwich hover perilously exposed above the relegation zone; a hostage to the fortune of others. But Alex Neil requires an alchemist’s touch to navigate a passage to safety after his side’s Sunderland surrender.
It was not Andre Marriner’s failings, it was the failings of Neil and his under-performing players who wilted and buckled as the Black Cats bullied them into submission.
Norwich’s recent revival makes the crushing disappointment harder to digest. Perhaps even prolongs the sense of anger. Had the Canaries not stirred against Manchester City, West Brom and Newcastle United their fate by this stage, in all probability, would already have been sealed; joining Aston Villa in the Championship malaise.
But the pulse was strong, the character and collective will to resist palpable, the sense of unity and belief within a loyal fanbase growing with each passing, positive week. Crystal Palace marked a regressive step in an upward trend. Beat Sunderland, a direct rival, a team who had failed to win any of their last six or kept a Premier League clean sheet away from home since November, and the path to prosperity was in reach.
Carrow Road at the final whistle against Newcastle was a scene of unbridled joy and elation. Those who remained on Saturday, as Duncan Watmore administered the last rites in stoppage time, sat in stunned silence.
The saddest aspect is we have been here before. Seb Bassong’s Norwich City career has been punctuated by his propensity to wander up blind alleys. Neil was adamant Jan Kirchhoff had levered the powerful centre-back illegally off the ball to spark a killer turnover in the midst of what threatened to be a Norwich fightback. He may have had a case but Bassong was robbed again inside his own penalty area to allow Seb Larsson to pick out the marauding Watmore to coolly round John Ruddy.
Ryan Bennett, shorn of the calming presence of the stricken Timm Klose, seemed mesmerised by Jermain Defoe’s cunning forward play. The wily Sam Allardyce clearly targeted Norwich’s vulnerability and sought to turn Bennett and Bassong at every opportunity.
Defoe ran the channels with the hunger of a fresh-faced teen, not a 33-year-old with plenty of miles on the clock. Fabio Borini was a willing accomplice, the Italian drifting off the back of Bennett prior to the interval before Andre Wisdom’s lunging challenge earned the Black Cats a penalty. Again, Neil felt the Liverpool loanee had made contact with the ball prior to planting his foot on top of Borini’s. Marriner, stationed directly behind the incident, saw only criminality.
Norwich tried to respond but could find no way past Vito Mannone and when they did the woodwork or the all-action Lee Cattermole came to his rescue. The Canaries were again guilty of fitful, sporadic, low-grade aerial service in the general vicinity of Dieumerci Mbokani. The claustrophobic occasion seemingly too suffocating to play with any genuine sense of attacking flair as Sunderland retreated deeper and deeper.
This was a sickening blow; a major dent to Neil’s pugnacious self-confidence. Robbie Brady’s half-time departure, Nathan Redmond’s half-time arrival and the continued faith placed in Steven Naismith were darts to throw at the beleaguered Canaries’ chief as the inquest unfolded.
Given the seismic shift in momentum, the wild swing in goal difference towards Wearside and Newcastle’s positive result against Swansea City - resuscitating their own fading survival hopes - this surely ranked as the lowest point of the Scot’s brief yet, to this juncture, uplifting Carrow Road tenure.
The swirling optimism that inevitably will engulf the north-east is testament to how abruptly the mood music can shift. Minus the cavernous presence of Klose to plug the glaring deficiencies at the back few outside the camp will travel to Arsenal with anything other than dread.
The bitter memories of 2014 are etched into the psyche of Norwich City fans. Sunderland’s escape on that occasion was the stuff of legend. This win gives them a platform to repeat the same feat.
Norwich must dredge one last, final, defiant effort. But even that may not be enough after ceding the initiative following a wretched defeat which, when the dust settles, may resonate just as powerfully as the magnificent defiance of City’s stoppage time victory against the Magpies. A day where survival seemed within their grasp.