Six things we learned from a torrid Sunderland lunchtime for Norwich City
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It was billed as a season-defining game - now the Canaries will hope that is far from the case. Michael Bailey gives you his six observations from Sunderland's crushing victory at Carrow Road…
1 – Alex Neil’s magic is in danger of wearing off
It was clear and deliberate – given away by Alex Neil’s repeated pre-match use of the word ‘enjoy’.
The masterful way he steered the Canaries to Championship play-off promotion was what stuck most deeply with City fans as he attempted to take things up a notch in the Premier League. And he tried to repeat that trick ahead of Saturday – keeping relaxed and assured, ensuring the pressure was off his players as much as possible.
It worked at Wembley, after a season where City won a lot and bubbled along. This time however, City were found wanting.
Now of course, this is all far from straightforward. On Saturday, Norwich made a promising start and never really gave up on trying to make something happen for themselves. In many ways, it’s the periphery stuff that was the frustration.
Leaving Nathan Redmond on the bench to affect things later in a game was, with where City are, a gamble that failed. Likewise reorganising City’s scouting network in the summer, rather that finding more recruits. Have the likes of Ivo Pinto and Matt Jarvis really improved Neil’s squad?
And the false Friday hope over Timm Klose’s fitness? That did no one any favours.
2 – Nobody knows what a foul is any more
Let’s get one thing straight – there is no argument available to suggest Andre Wisdom’s tackle on Fabio Borini for Sunderland’s first-half penalty should not have been given.
That goes for a fair number of City supporters, Match of the Day pundit Trevor Sinclair, even the City boss himself.
Did Wisdom get the ball first? Yes. Did he intend to follow through on to Borini’s ankle? Almost certainly not.
And yet, neither of those two points preclude a foul being given. All a tackle needs to be is either careless (a foul), reckless (booking) and deemed to have included excessive force (red).
Quite clearly, Wisdom’s tackle was careless and in truth, given it could have left Borini with a nasty injury, it’s hard to argue with Andre Marriner’s assertion it was worthy of a booking.
That’s one down. From then on, Mr Marriner is on his own.
Maybe on a few occasions, City were too eager to go to ground. But on Saturday, in general the requirements for a foul were not the same between the two sides. It was a bizarre situation that sadly, isn’t rare for games officiated by Marriner.
3 – Hold off on the Seb criticism – because City need him, big time
That leads us on nicely to point three – which starts with a question: Was Jan Kirchhoff’s second-half tackle on Sebastien Bassong careless or not?
Having tangled his leg between the defender to bring him down, it’s easier to argue yes than no. Either way, it doesn’t matter now – and of course, had Bassong just got rid of the ball in the first place, the sorry episode that in reality put any points beyond City’s reach would not have happened.
There was a period after that goal where the former Canaries skipper and player of the season looked lost. It was awful to see.
And yet within a few minutes of the final whistle, Alex Neil had finally confirmed the extent of Timm Klose’s injury – along with the extent City are now relying on Bassong to slip back in the side and offer a platform for survival from the depths of despair; especially if Andre Wisdom is now out for several weeks due to injury too.
So yes, no doubt a few people want to have a word with Seb – but that will have to wait.
Instead there is a two-week break to get the training ground work done.
Earlier this season Bassong played all of City’s home draws with Arsenal and Everton, and that win at Old Trafford. Bring the same again please Seb.
4 – It’s just not happening for Steven Naismith
As I asked of Alex Neil little more than a week ago, it would be understandable if things like moving south and becoming a dad again had meant it was going to take a little longer than some would’ve wanted for Steven Naismith to start delivering his best at City.
Perhaps the Scot has almost been hindered by his debut performance, which was superb – from his link-up play and movement, to that crisp finish. All of it shouted £8m player.
The problem comes with the fact we have seen absolutely none of that since the Liverpool game.
Given Matt Jarvis managed similar on his debut, maybe it’s not such a freak occurrence.
The reality is Naismith never came with the luxury of time. He had the age and Premier League experience. His was to be a signing that helped City avoid a grim relegation battle now – and it just hasn’t happened.
Saturday mostly passed Naismith by – and when he did have a key moment to intervene, he overhit his pass or went to ground.
Whatever the situation now, Naismith needs to start contributing properly – otherwise, it’s hard to see why he is keeping others out of the starting XI.
5 – Big Sam can scrap his way to the Friendship Trophy
The conversations and occasional questions about the Friendship Trophy were a little uncomfortable given what was at stake in the latest meeting between Norwich City and Sunderland.
That was before the game. And then what happens within a couple of minutes of kick-off? We have a mass melee outside the visiting dugout and Sam Allardyce swinging all kinds of players out of his way. It was captivating to watch, if all a little ridiculous – and if Mr Marriner can bring himself to recall the incident and include it in his report, it may yet wind up with a couple of FA charges.
For Sunderland’s part in proceedings, the game panned out perfectly. The goals came at ideal times. Big Sam’s half-time chat would have been straightforward – don’t screw it up this time, like you’ve kept doing. Even Duncan Watmore’s return from injury handed them youthful freedom.
There have been two big cliches this year – Allardyce’s experience being key and Jermaine Defoe’s goal exploits being the difference. It’s hard to argue against either on the basis of Saturday.
6 – It’s not over yet, but City can only watch from here
This was always going to be a crucial fortnight – and it started in the worst possible fashion for Norwich, of course.
The joy of that Newcastle win a few games ago was euphoric. And yet, by the time you looked at the table once the dust had settled, it was pretty clear there was still so much work to do. That is a reality that reaches to this weekend too. Sure, by 5pm on Saturday it felt like it was all over. Maybe even now, it still does – just a little bit. But it’s not. Not yet.
It’s all eyes on Newcastle who host Manchester City on Tuesday and then travel to Liverpool on Saturday, before Sunderland host Arsenal on the Sunday.
Yes, you’re right. Both City’s north-east rivals could pick up a few points from those if they hit their straps. But it’s quite possible all three of those games could result in defeats too.
Should City face a Saturday at The Emirates still one point ahead of Sunderland and three ahead of Newcastle – who by that point would’ve played a game more – then the current picture and assumed survival for the Black Cats will not look as simple.
Two years ago Sunderland left Carrow Road with defeat convinced they were down. This time they left with a win, convinced they are safe. We’ll see.
• Follow Michael Bailey on Twitter @michaeljbailey