Cantwell roared back to his best with superb display during City's win over Cardiff
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
The release of pressure and relief was clear for all to see as Todd Cantwell punched the Carrow Road air in joyous celebration, after smashing home a hugely important goal both personally and for his team.
The Canaries should already have put a strong Cardiff team to bed, a particularly dangerous side for their direct style and reliance on set-piece threats, which made a one-goal lead feel more fragile by the minute.
Yet as Cantwell's vicious shot flew past Alex Smithies to fire City 2-0 up, it was about so much more than securing the three points which would seal a fifth consecutive win and being five points clear at the Championship summit at Christmas.
The 'Dereham Deco' seemed to have the world at his feet after scoring his sixth Premier League goal of last season on New Year's Day, a 1-1 draw with Crystal Palace when a late equaliser continued a hugely frustrating run of results that didn't bring the points that City's performances had deserved.
He had broken into the England Under-21 set-up, was getting rave reviews on Match of the Day for his technique and flair, and was being linked with clubs including Manchester United, Tottenham and Manchester City in national newspapers.
Yet in July he was slumped on the Carrow Road turf in a daze after a 4-0 defeat to West Ham had sealed relegation back to the Championship, wondering where it had all gone wrong.
The audacity of his penalty at Tottenham in the FA Cup fifth round, and brilliant strike against Manchester United in the cruel extra-time defeat in the quarter-final which followed after lockdown, continued the hype though and links to clubs including Liverpool, Leicester, Newcastle and even Bayern Munich followed.
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But with the transfer window not closing until October, pre-season and the first two games rather passed him by, coming to a head when an unhappy Daniel Farke explained that he had left out the academy product and Emi Buendia because he felt they had been distracted by speculation during training ahead of a 1-0 loss at Bournemouth in September - when Leeds were being strongly linked with bids for him.
After three games out, Cantwell returned for three games in October and looked ready to get back on track - only for hip and ankle injuries to keep him out for seven matches, after being taken off at half-time of a 1-1 draw at Brentford when he had looked uncomfortable in the first half.
While Buendia has been able to crack on with successfully rediscovering his rhythm, Cantwell has had to be patient, with three impressive performances from the bench recently. On Saturday he was finally back in the starting XI though - and grasped his chance with both hands.
In the thick of the action immediately, the Norfolk-born talent played Teemu Pukki into the box with nice passes on three occasions in the first 25 minutes, the third of which was perfectly-weighted after a drop of the shoulder to get into space, only for the striker to fire beyond the far post.
The lucky 2,000 fans in the South Stand sang "he's one of our own" in appreciation and Cantwell got stuck into the scrappy spell which followed, earning a free-kick on the edge of the box from which Jacob Sorensen saw his effort saved.
It looked like his big moment had arrived in injury-time though, after a beautiful bullet of a pass from Buendia found him in space on the left. He tried to curl the ball around Smithies but his technique let him down and Curtis Nelson was able to get back to make sure the ball wasn't going in.
Frustration boiled over comically three minutes after the break, after his gorgeous through-ball from the left sent Pukki clean through. It was just the sort of chance the Finn normally gobbles up but a heavy touch wasted the opening and Cantwell dropped to the floor in disbelief, as a wonderful assist slipped away.
On the hour, after Christoph Zimmermann had made a brilliant defensive block, Oliver Skipp sent Cantwell clear with a lovely through-ball. This time his pass to Pukki was a touch short so the striker returned the ball and he pinged a fine switch to Buendia on the right, whose excellent control gave Mario Vrancic the chance to complete a fantastic team goal - only for his shot to drift wide of the far post.
Worries were growing but finally Cantwell's big moment arrived, capping a flowing team move that he was in the thick of, with five other team-mates getting a touch in the build-up.
It was Buendia who pulled the trigger though, drawing three players towards him and prodding the ball to Cantwell in space, who unleashed all of that pent up frustration with a pure strike into the top-right corner, pulling the cracker to start the Christmas party at Carrow Road.
It was a cathartic moment for a player who knows he's got Premier League capabilities - but now realises just how hard you have to work and how mentally strong you have to be if you are to make it at the top level.
After playing his part in late chances for Buendia and Kenny McLean, there was a late scare, as Cardiff winger Harry Wilson followed the lead of his increasingly angry and frustrated team-mates when he launched into a disgraceful tackle on Cantwell in front of the dug-outs in injury-time.
It was totally unnecessary and the City ace was fortunate to walk away unharmed but referee Tim Robinson made the bizarre decision to only show a yellow card.
VERDICT: One of his best performances yet in a Norwich shirt, particularly at Championship level, focusing on creativity and work for his team, before making no mistake with his best goal yet in Canaries colours.
His ninth goal and 77th appearance. If he continues to play like this, reaches his City century and helps to earn a second promotion, he can go down as a hero at his local club - whatever the future may bring.
RATING: 9 out of 10