The Carling Cup does not matter but the battle at Stamford Bridge sure did
One of the great advantages of being a die-hard Canary fan is that I see the world through unashamedly yellow and green tinted spectacles. So I can state quite categorically and unequivocally that City’s defeat in the Carling Cup last week did not matter. Indeed it may well be a blessing in disguise.
My friend Nathan at Bella Italia at Center Parcs in Elveden pulled my leg about City being beaten 0-4 at home by MK Dons. But as I told him, the facts speak for themselves; the sole priority for this club this season is to finish 17th or higher in the league and preserve our Premier League status. We do not want to be diverted from this Holy Grail by the distraction of a cup run. We do not wish to follow the example of Birmingham City last season nor (whisper it softly) of Norwich in 1985 by winning a cup and in the process losing our Premier League status. A long cup run would not only divert our focus and attention from the main task, but would increase the risk of players’ tiredness, injuries or suspensions which in turn could have a deleterious effect on our league campaign.
The Carling Cup is nothing but a Mickey Mouse competition anyway. Most “big” teams put out weakened teams in the early rounds. Lambert played a reserve team against MK Dons and made no fewer than 11 changes from the team that started against Stoke, thereby proving that it was not a priority for him. If it is not a priority for him, it is not a priority for the club, nor for me. This also explains why the players did not over-exert themselves to win the game, why the crowd was only 13,000, and why in that game neither the players nor the supporters displayed the passion that both have displayed in all three of our Premier League matches so far.
The League/Milk/Carling Cup did matter in the past. A good cup run generates funds, enthuses the fans, and can offer glory, silverware, cash, and European football for the players and the club. So it mattered in 1962 and 1985. It even mattered in 1973 and 1975. The difference today is that the importance to Norwich City of maintaining our Premier League status dwarfs all these considerations.
So the Carling Cup defeat set the scene nicely for the Battle of Stamford Bridge. This time, this team, and these Canary fans were well and truly up for it. The atmosphere in the sold out away end was electric. BBC MOTD commented on the colour which we brought to the occasion, and might have added that we sang incessantly. In contrast the Chelsea fans were as silent as corpses in a graveyard, the tannoy was ineffectual, and the electric scoreboard at the North Stand end didn’t work. My guess is that having just shelled out well over �58million on four players, Abramovich could not afford to put a shilling or a rouble in the Stamford Bridge electricity meter.
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The Canaries kicked off with a defensive line up of two full backs (Naughton and Tierney) and three centre halves (Barnett, Whitbread, and De Laet), three (Crofts, Bradley Johnson, and Wes) in midfield, and Holt and Chris Martin up front. Chelski played two strikers, Drogba and Torres, but they took the lead in unlikely fashion after six minutes when full back Boswinga was given too much space 25 yards out and his fierce drive beat Ruddy. Undismayed, City more than matched their hosts, and as play flowed from end to end either side might have added further goals. Whitbread hobbled off after 30 minutes to be replaced by Pilkington, and on the hour Hoolahan was replaced by Morison.
After 63 minutes Naughton crossed from the right, Chelsea defender Ivanovic and his keeper both went for the ball, and as the defender headed it into the air, Hilario was hilariously stranded way out of his goal as Holt brilliantly hooked the ball into the empty net.
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As Chelsea attempted to regain the lead, Drogba needed lengthy treatment after he and Ruddy went up for the same ball. After about ten minutes delay he was stretchered off with concussion. Play swung from end to end, and Morison almost regained the lead for City but Terry managed to divert his shot for a corner. Torres, who had been quite anonymous apart from being booked for a high challenge aimed at Barnett’s groin, was lucky to escape a second yellow card and subsequent sending off when he tripped Morison. If he really is worth �50 million then Grant Holt (who has now scored 54 goals for Norwich at all levels) must be worth a conservative �150 million.
With 10 minutes left disaster struck. Naughton stood off the attacking Ramires hoping that he had forced him wide, but as Ruddy dived for the ball Ramires trailing leg caught the keeper and his dive won the penalty he was looking for. Had he wished he could have jumped over Ruddy and continued his run. But he didn’t... it was a penalty and a red card for Ruddy. Chris Martin was sacrificed and on came Rudd. Had Rudd stood still, Lampard’s straight down the middle penalty would have hit him on the chest, but he was already moving right. 1-2. And in the eleventh minute of extra time Mata took advantage of De Laet’s weakly hit pass to add a third. Final score 1-3.
So City suffered their first defeat in the Premier League this season. It was their first defeat after four unbeaten away league games, the first league defeat since losing at Swansea in April, and only their third defeat in 19 league matches. The performance was more than excellent, it was one to be proud of. The result was unlucky. Unfortunately two points from three games is relegation form, and City are not accumulating the points which their performances should have merited. City must learn that mistakes at the back at this level are punished. They simply cannot afford to give away penalties and have players sent off at the current rate. And it is now 32 games since they won away in the Premiership in 2004.
The press were fulsome in their praise for the Canaries football and their performance. Rightly so. Even Alan Shearer thought we are good enough to stay up. I was proud to be a City fan at Stamford Bridge. Our team did us proud. They were not outclassed. Far from it. They certainly matched Chelsea and came very close to a creditable draw. For long periods they looked the more likely winners. And they battled. Special mention should be made of Holt, who was an inspirational leader and who proved beyond doubt that he can compete at this level.
But in football you are only as good as your next game. City are due a stroke of luck. Let us hope that it all comes right for the Canaries in the next home game against West Brom. Even a lucky strike and a narrow victory will suffice for me. Five points from four games would lift us into mid table and provide a satisfactory return for the players’ splendid efforts so far. Keep the faith. Bring on the Baggies. Kick it off, throw it in, have a little scrimmage, keep it low, a splendid rush, bravo win or die.. on the ball, City.