Is it time for all Norwich City fans to start believing?
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
On a day when the behaviour of the Newcastle United fans seemed to defy stupidity, the club’s chances of remaining in the Premier League edged ever closer to defying mathematics. The jubilant celebrations of the composed Timm Klose, the assisting Jonny Howson and the goalscoring Martin Olsson were telling: Saturday’s victory was so critical in enhancing Norwich City’s survival hopes and condemning Newcastle to a now close to inevitable plummet into the Championship.
After nine consecutive Premier League defeats, our hopes of remaining in the division had been reduced to a romantic, idealistic and intangible fantasy. Three weeks and seven points on and that seemingly distant dream has been transformed into a pragmatic and viable reality.
City’s turnaround has been remarkable. Yet, the solution to the problems we have encountered since January has not been a radical one. Timm Klose’s unerring quality has begun to manifest itself. Martin Olsson has been employed by Alex Neil at left-back, allowing Robbie Brady to attack freely in his preferred position on the wing. Meanwhile, Gary O’Neil has represented an impenetrable force in front of the back four whilst Deumerci Mbokani has began to cause havoc for opposition defences.
Mbokani deserved his goal so much. Since his start at West Brom, the 170 minutes of football he has played for us had been outstanding, relentlessly winning headers, holding the ball up and releasing other faster players such as Brady, Jarvis or Naismith. His goal was all about his other attributes, however, displaying power, instinct and and a strong degree of directness that will be needed by Norwich attackers if we are to sustain this strong run of form.
After emerging from the callous Brussels attacks unscathed a fortnight earlier, Mbokani is now playing an instrumental role in ensuring Norwich also survive in a very different sense. If the Congolese player continues to constitute such a physical presence up front and retain the ball with such effectiveness, we have every chance of scoring the goals required to keep us up.
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Our goalscoring problems have not been fully resolved, however. Neil still appears unsure of his optimum and most threatening front four, with only Brady and Mbokani really playing with the conviction to continually retain their places. Since his brilliant debut against Liverpool in January, Naismith has failed to make a significant impact going forward, whilst Jarvis’s final delivery on the wing has all too frequently lacked the quality required for a Premier League winger.
Meanwhile, Wes Hoolahan, Nathan Redmond and Patrick Bamford all sat on the bench, three talented players who surely warrant further opportunities as the end of the season progresses. Neil introducing Jerome to replace Mbokani late in the game on Saturday appeared somewhat perplexing, especially given Bamford’s lively, woodwork hitting performance against Manchester City three weeks earlier. Redmond remains one of our most menacing attackers when match fit, whilst Hoolahan’s creativity was missed at the expense of the rather ineffective Naismith.
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Defensively, Timm Klose has defended City’s goal like his nation’s army would defend Bern during an attack. The Swiss international’s tenacity, aerial presence and composure in possession has been what we’ve been yearning for all season whilst the likes of Russell Martin and Sebastian Bassong commit frequent errors. Klose exudes finesse, thwarting multiple Newcastle attacks both in the air and on the ground, whilst providing a perpetual threat from set pieces. So far, he has looked every penny of the nine million pounds we invested in him.
John Ruddy’s performances in goal have also improved. Whilst his kicking and clearing may be far inferior to that of Declan Rudd’s, Ruddy’s late save at 2-2 was vital, allowing us to counter Newcastle’s brief bombardment and score through Olsson. His commanding of his penalty area has also got better, catching several crosses and thus quelling the threat of Andros Townsend and Moussa Sissoko on the wings.
This weekend’s game at Palace remains just as crucial as it was before Saturday’s victory. Neil must ensure continuity in his team selection, keeping the dynamic Andre Wisdom at right-back and persisting with Ryan Bennett as Klose’s partner in the middle. He must continue to deploy Howson in the centre – his most natural and effective position – as well as Brady on the wing, whilst considering bringing in the dangerous Redmond for the inconsistent Jarvis. Meanwhile, the proposition of Wes Hoolahan interrupting the usually important work of Mile Jedinak and Joe Ledley in midfield is surely a tantalising one for City fans, as opposed to the less innovative Steven Naismith. Up front, Mbokani has to start on the basis of his superb recent performances.
Norwich played well on Saturday. Gary O’Neil’s presence in front of the back four has been vital despite his handball, constantly breaking up play and functioning as an excellent understudy to the injured Tettey. His partnership with Howson has manifested itself well, with the latter advancing forward – setting up Olsson’s winner – whilst O’Neil provides the shield required for a defence that is still gelling as the end of the season approaches.
Should we continue to recreate such performances at Selhurst Park and at home to the likes of Sunderland and then Watford, City should be fine. On Saturday’s testimony, Newcastle appear doomed, offering little going forward and looking alarmingly vulnerable at the back. Perhaps, next season in the Championship, their fans will learn to give the ball back to the opposition before a set-piece.