How costly will missed penalties be?

PUBLISHED: 11:44 22 February 2006 | UPDATED: 09:14 14 September 2010

Traditionally at this time of year, we reach for the nearest calculator, thumb through the remaining fixtures and decide whether or not Norwich City have a hope in hell of (a) reaching the play-offs, (b) avoiding relegation from the Premiership or (c) winning the Championship title by a country mile - all depending, of course, on which of the last five seasons we are talking about.

Traditionally at this time of year, we reach for the nearest calculator, thumb through the remaining fixtures and decide whether or not Norwich City have a hope in hell of (a) reaching the play-offs, (b) avoiding relegation from the Premiership or (c) winning the Championship title by a country mile - all depending, of course, on which of the last five seasons we are talking about.

Whether, in the current unforgiving climate, doing the same this week will merely prompt yet more hoots of derision is something that only Saturday's trip to Selhurst Park will decide. I get the impression that three big points against the Eagles and one or two more eyes might just start to stray over City's last 10 games and give it the full 'Mmm, well, we can get a result at Sheffield Wednesday…' routine.

After all, the argument runs, any old fool can beat Brighton & Hove Albion and Derby County at home. Beating Palace in their own backyard, now that takes some doing.

As it does to beat Sheffield United 3-1 at Bramall Lane. And, after all, that came on the back of two comfortable successes against Crewe and Southampton. Before that it was an utterly abject trip to Derby County for a 2-0 defeat at Pride Park that suggested the Canaries would struggle to win a beetle drive at Wroxham Women's Institute, let alone wipe the smile off Neil Warnock's face little more than three weeks later.

In short, very strange things have been happening this season - on and off the pitch - and it is probably one of the biggest frustrations of the lot as far as the long-suffering fans are concerned that you never, ever really know just what the next game might bring. Unlike, say, at Reading, where you know with near 100 per cent certainty that nigh on every game - except last Friday's trip to Luton - brings another three points en route to a richly-deserved runaway title success.

Which is why this weekend's trip to Croydon suburbia might prove to be so crucial - no mean feat in a season littered with “key” games and “big” turning points.

Because if Norwich can get a “big” result at Selhurst Park, you might just be able to claim with some level of certainty and confidence that the home games against Stoke City, Leicester City and Queen's Park Rangers will take care of themselves.

The remaining two - Sheffield United at home on March 18 and Wolves' visit to Carrow Road on the final day of the season - will, in their own way, also take care of themselves.

The Blades game is just a Warnock rematch and in all likelihood will be a lively affair. As for Glenn Hoddle's men, if by some unforeseen miracle, Norwich are anywhere near a top six spot on April 30, I have a sneaking suspicion that memories of that play-off semi-final four years ago may come back to haunt Wolves and their fans. Neither Sheffield United at home nor Wolves at home are games that I'd worry about.

The three games that could yet seal Norwich's fate are this weekend's trip to Palace, the trip to Leeds United on March 11 and the long haul to Deepdale for the Preston North End clash on April 8.

Whether you have any straws left to cling to will, as ever, depend on whether your glass has been half full or half empty this season - whether, for example, you saw, Hull away as a hard-earned point by a team in the middle of fundamental rebuilding or just another laboured, disjointed effort that was right down there with, say, Plymouth Argyle away.

If you take any heart from the last two home results - and, in particular, the improved team performance that underpinned the comfortable 2-0 success over Derby - and the fact that City have lost just one of their last six away trips, there may be cause for hope, especially with the way Worthington's new-look team is set up.

At home, visiting teams - particularly of the Brighton and Derby ilk - will come and sit back, pack bodies behind the ball and try to hit Norwich on the counter-attack. On no account will they push players forward and allow either Darren Huckerby or Rob Earnshaw the time or the space to hit them hard on the break.

Away from home and, in someone else's back yard, those basic rules of engagement change. Or rather they do if a side has play-off ambitions of their own. At Hull, the roles were reversed - the Tigers sat back as Norwich, the away team, pushed forward.

But Palace, Leeds and Preston will all be looking to put their best foot forward. They'll come at the Canaries and if Robert Green's throwing arm remains in Brighton-style form, that could cause big problems. In Huckerby and Earnshaw, City have pace to burn. It's getting the ball into the space directly in front of them on a regular basis that is the biggest tactical challenge facing Worthington and his coaching team between now and the end of the season.

This being Norwich, we all know where it will probably unravel - in some miserable corner of Lancashire on a dank Friday night as the Sky cameras roll for that game at Burnley. Either there or on Earnshaw's return to Cardiff City.

What would really sum up City's season is if they should end the season in better shape and greater heart and fall, as most expect, just short of the play-off line. If they fall three points short of a potential return trip to Cardiff, then in the bitter post-mortems that will inevitably follow, it won't be too hard to point to where those three points went begging - those two late penalty misses which denied City a deserved point against Reading at home in September and the chance to take three instead of one against Millwall at home in October.

Yes, 101 other things went wrong in between, but for those who believe in a fine line between success and failure, those two wayward penalties may prove to be more costly than anyone, at the time, ever imagined.

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