Hugill stepped up when Norwich City needed him with determined display at Cardiff
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
It's not been the easiest first season as a Norwich City player for Jordan Hugill but during victory at Cardiff the striker showed the physicality and determination that Canaries fans have been hoping for.
Like most of the City players, his second half wasn't as impressive as the first, but afterwards the former Preston favourite was being hailed as 'outstanding' by his skipper and as a 'warrior' by his head coach.
The 28-year-old was brought in from West Ham for an initial £2.6million, in a deal which could eventually be worth around £5m, and quickly set his sights on bettering the 15 goals he scored while on loan at QPR last season.
However, Hugill knew when joining that he had the formidable force of Teemu Pukki as competition, a player that Daniel Farke has built his success around at this level and who is crucial to the style of play.
It was hoped that the physical forward could provide the perfect foil for the Finn, much in the way Jordan Rhodes had during 2018-19, both as competition and a plan B option.
Five starts in the opening 12 games had brought just one goal, the cool injury-time winner from the penalty spot at Rotherham, with City struggling to adjust to playing with a strong target man instead of the precise runs of Pukki.
Then his progress was thwarted by a shoulder injury during the win at Middlesbrough in mid-November, with initial fears of surgery and a long-term absence giving way to missing just four games in the end.
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That left Hugill easing his way back in with seven successive late cameos as a substitute before another start arrived against Coventry in the FA Cup.
That brought his second goal, as Przemek Placheta provided just the kind of supply that the former Middlesbrough loanee craves, surging to the near post to head in a cross from the left wing.
However, despite the joy of getting a second City goal, Hugill was a peripheral figure during the 2-0 win over Coventry at Carrow Road - with stats website WhoScored.com reporting he had just eight touches during his 72 minutes. The Canaries learned their lesson though.
With Pukki pulling out of Saturday's game with a side strain, Hugill had his first league start in almost two months. On this occasion he was far more involved, with WhoScored showing 39 touches during his welcome 90 minutes.
To be fair to the forward, as with many of the players who featured in the cup against Coventry, it's not easy to recapture full form and fitness when on the fringes after injury.
He was clearly a much happier man in South Wales though, even though he didn't get the goal his display deserved - and not just because he'd successfully persuaded Dan Barden to let him shave his head ahead of the game.
After an initially shaky start, giving the ball straight to Joe Ralls and being beaten in a challenge on halfway by Marlon Pack, it was some simple moments of hold-up play which eased Hugill into the game as he used his strength.
In the 18th minute he powered his way to beating two men in the air to nod down to Mario Vrancic, who couldn't make the most of possession, and two minutes later the striker was appealing for a penalty.
Emi Buendia's pass had gone awry but Hugill darted forward and was chipped in behind the Cardiff defence by Vrancic, before going down under the challenge of Curtis Nelson - only to see he had been adjudged as offside.
He was finding his rhythm though and in the 23rd minute some deft left-footed control of a sharp through-ball from Kenny McLean opened up his big chance but keeper Alex Smithies spread himself well to save the shot, only for Todd Cantwell to tuck him the loose ball for 2-0.
City were using their target man properly, as shown again in the 35th minute as Buendia played into his feet from the left wing and charged into the box, with Hugill using his strength before completing the one-two, only for the angle to prove too narrow as Buendia fired into the side-netting.
Soon after he battled to get in front of Joel Bagan and win a free-kick on the right wing, as his relish of the physical battles continued through to half-time, controlling one kick from Barden that Joe Bennett admitted defeat with rather than try to beat the Canaries man.
Cardiff did well to turn the second half into a scrap though, with Hugill relieved to see Barden hold a bobbling low shot from Will Vaulks after he'd headed a free-kick away in the 48th minute.
Keeping the home defence occupied and holding up the ball on the occasions he was found, Hugill seized on loose play from Vaulks in the 73rd minute but Cantwell was crowded out as he got on the end of the forward's cross from the right.
His determination drew appreciative applause from the City bench in the 79th minute, as he muscled his way in front of Bennett to get the ball to Buendia.
Hugill didn't look too impressed six minutes later though, as Oliver Skipp squared to substitute Placheta, who ignored his unmarked striker on the edge of the box and went for goal. Thankfully, the winger beat his man and got his shot on target, so Hugill couldn't complain too much as Smithies made a decent save.
His satisfying day did end quite strangely though. In the 88th minute he had barged Vaulks over in midfield but seen the referee play advantage as the Bluebirds applied late pressure and soon after he used his experience to trot to the corner and try to wind down the clock, only to concede a throw.
Then in the fourth minute of injury-time he found himself lying on the ground with pushing and shoving playing out above him, after landing on the ball and holding it to his chest after Bennett had challenged him from behind during the frenetic closing stages, with handball given instead of a free-kick in his favour. As tempers cooled however there was no yellow card and the hosts couldn't take advantage of the free-kick.
VERDICT: Definitely a step in the right direction for Hugill, stepping up when City needed him to in Pukki's absence. With his injury issue hopefully behind him now, this is the kind of grizzled, traditional centre-forward play that can see him play an important role. The key was his team-mates using his assets properly as much as anything though.
RATING: 7 out of 10