Norwich City must grind out the points
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Saturday – not so much a must-win game at Loftus Road as a must-not-lose occasion.
A win for QPR and they would have had us in our sights.
Now with 13 games to go and a 11-point gap to make up, any chances they had of overhauling us took a big knock at the weekend.
This was the latest in a season of season-defining games, and it probably sums up this campaign as well as the likes of Newcastle and Stoke at home – points on the board but in a totally unmemorable manner.
It’s the quality of points which matter, not the actual game now.
It’s been the thing about 2012/13 right from the kick-off at Fulham – it’s all about staying up. Doesn’t matter how, as long we’re still in the Premier League come August.
Message-board posters can complain as much as they like about a lack of excitement or ambition, but if we survive with this squad it’s a major, major achievement.
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Plainly ‘the Messiah’ did not fancy our 2012/13 chances much, as that’s got to be one of the contributory factors to why he jumped ship over the summer.
We are now into that stage of the season when you start to lose a bit of overall focus and ambition once you’re needlessly out of the FA Cup – it’s all about grinding out points and getting to the end of the campaign as quickly as possible.
There are sure to be other occasions right down there with the latest visit to west London – but after three years of excitement and unpredictability I can put up with three months of less pulse-quickening fare.
The main thing on Saturday was avoiding defeat. QPR would have targeted us as a team to beat, to get their ludicrously expensive and morally-dubious survival bid off to a flying start. (I mean, did Christopher Samba go there to win trophies? Hardly.)
As it is a side who have won just twice in the first two thirds of the season now need four victories simply to catch our current total.
We may not have as much to lose as Rangers by going down this season – and not just because of the increased TV money – but it’s still something you wouldn’t want to contemplate.
If we’d been relegated last year under Paul Lambert it would have been no surprise to most people following our rapid rise through the Football League. People would, by and large, have accepted it a whole lot more than was the case in 2005.
This time around it would come as far more of a shock after staying up with something to spare and getting more used to mixing it with the big boys regularly rather than just another one-off taste. And would we bounce back from the Championship straight away? I have my doubts.
Saturday was a completely forgettable occasion for everyone, other than Mark Bunn, but certainly for Wes Hoolahan, given his penalty miss at Loftus Road three seasons ago.
Yes we have to start scoring goals, and soon, but that’s our sixth – count them – league clean sheet of the season.
And, most crucially of all, we are still seven points clear of the drop zone. Seven weeks and eight matches ago, when we beat Wigan 2-1 on December 15 to go seventh in the table, the margin was 10 points.
To have had the sticky run we have had since then and still be in that position shows just how we are able to dig out some vital points.
As opposed to other clubs, whose chief ability appears to be to throw away leads in the final stages – Paul Lambert, in particular, seems to be ageing quicker than any prime minister of the past 20 years.
A week ago after the Luton debacle I must admit I did wonder whether we might get dragged into a real relegation battle.
Two ground-out draws later and our prospects look a lot, lot better.
Perhaps we can now go on to secure our status against Aston Villa in May – after all, it’s bound to be on Sky and it ought to make for a far more memorable occasion than a Saturday lunchtime kick-off at QPR.
• CANARIES CLEARLY HAVE STOMACH FOR THE FIGHT
Different players and a different occasion, but how contrasting were the performances against Tottenham and Luton.
Last Wednesday night right from the start City showed just how much they wanted to win.
And it wasn’t just down to players feeling under pressure from the pending arrival of new signings and needing to impress, they just went for it a whole lot more than in that completely unambitious draw against Newcastle.
Had the line-up against Luton showed a quarter of that determination and resolve we’d have strolled through in the FA Cup. And it was right after that defeat that people started to question the Canaries’ mental resolve in the survival battle. We sat back and let a non-league side take the initiative, and although that result might have been forgotten in the subsequent days due to the 24-seven nature of Premier League media coverage, it will return to haunt us whenever a non-league club is in FA Cup action again – such as a week on Saturday, in fact.
You can’t turn momentum on and off – as we saw after last season’s exit to Leicester. And if you don’t show it against the likes of Luton it’s a real cause for concern.
I’d have been overjoyed with a point before last Wednesday’s kick-off, but it wasn’t the result which ultimately mattered, it was the performance.
Showing that amount of resolve is not the hallmark of a side about to be relegated. It also was hardly a flash in the pan against top sides at Carrow Road, given that Tottenham weren‘t perhaps exactly at the best throughout.
Back in 2004/5 there was the defeat of Manchester United, true, but other results against the leading clubs were rather more forgettable – being taken apart by Arsenal, well beaten by Liverpool and Chelsea, and edged out by Everton. This time around we’ve beaten Manchester United and Arsenal, while only narrowly losing to Chelsea and Manchester City.
We are hard to beat. We’ve lost two, three, five matches fewer than the teams below us in the table.
If we start our remaining seven home fixtures the way we did against Tottenham rather than sit back and hand the initiative to the visitors in a Luton fashion we will get the supposed 12 points we need to stay up at Carrow Road alone. Without question.
• SMART BIT OF BUSINESS IN THE WINDOW
So, no Dean Ashton or Robert Earnshaw-type major signings in this transfer window.
And that’s no bad thing.
Even if some of the figures being bandied around for Gary Hooper were from Twitter-based jokers, the sums simply didn’t add up when you‘ve already spent comparatively big earlier in the season.
Being bounced into paying a fee of £8m or £9m hours before the transfer window closes? That way madness – or at least the chairmanship style of Tony Fernandes – lies.
(And talking of which… interesting to see the the comparatively cheap and not especially exotic – in Premier League terms – Jamie Mackie, Clint Hill and Shaun Derry were all in the QPR line-up on Saturday alongside Harry Redknapp’s more expensive acquisitions.)
Maybe you can take that sort of gamble when the benefits of future TV deals kick in. It wouldn’t come as a massive surprise if that interest is reactivated in the summer, when one striker has had his latest Champions League moment in the sun against Juventus and is closer to the end of his contract, while another with northern England links might decide that it’s time to move closer to his heartland.
But different fresh faces to bring in some new impetus up front, while losing the unavailable Steve Morison were smart pieces of business.
You suspect the Welsh international has divided opinion at all his other previous clubs dues to his general manner and body language – and yet this is a player whose contribution to last season will now be entirely overlooked.
I make it winners at home to Sunderland and away to QPR and West Brom, an effective winner at home to Newcastle – being the third goal in a 4-2 victory – and a late equaliser at Arsenal.
Those goals alone add up to nine points. Without them we’d have gone into the final day of the season in danger of being relegated.
Frustrating as he might have been, he’s played as big a part in City’s current standing as anyone else.