Fading Norwich limp towards finishing line
The most dangerous thing for any club in the Premier League is thinking they have cracked it. There were Norwich City, back in mid-December, sitting pretty up in seventh place after 10 games without defeat that had included wins over Arsenal and Manchester United. Having finished a commendable 12th on their return to the highest division last season, earning Paul Lambert promotion to Aston Villa, they seemed to be well on their way to further progress under Chris Hughton.
Then came a 2-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion, the start of a run of 19 League games – more than half a season – in which the only success was two narrow home wins. Today the return match against Albion takes place with the Canaries singing a very different song, and knowing that anything other than a win will mean a nervous couple of days at the very least.
It could, of course, have been far worse. That warm front blowing across the country from Norfolk in midweek was the exhaling of breath from thousands of Norwich supporters after Wigan, three points below them, unexpectedly lost a lead and a game at home to Swansea. Wigan might still be fancied to win their final game, at home to Aston Villa, but on Tuesday they visit Arsenal. Norwich go to Manchester City next Sunday and therefore want three more points beforehand.
If there is a single reason for the decline, the locals are agreed, it is a lack of goals. Only Stoke and Queens Park Rangers have scored fewer; only the relegated Rangers and Reading have won less often. Along with Stoke, Norwich have also had the lowest number of corners and shots. Last season the vigorous main striker Grant Holt scored 15 times out of a total of 52; since being mentioned as an England candidate, he has managed one in open play during 2013 and the team have only 34 this season with two games left. After Holt scored a penalty at home to Villa last weekend, the defence left Gabriel Agbonlahor too much room again, and he won a proper six-pointer.
It is probably just as well to have in charge as cool a hand as Hughton, who says: "It was always going to be difficult to sustain the run we were on. It's obvious we haven't scored enough goals but it's not always about having somebody to get you that volume of goals. It's how you apportion them around the side. As a team we've found that difficult."
But when Norwich's defence creaks and cracks, it tends to do so spectacularly, conceding five on the opening day at Fulham, five to Liver-pool (twice), four at Old Trafford and three in the last five minutes at Arsenal after holding an improbable 1-0 lead.
The striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel will arrive from Sporting Lisbon in the summer, but meanwhile Hughton has stuck with Holt, plus Wes Hoolahan in support. The message board on the local Pink 'Un website hints at the frustration, with topics like "Everybody yell 'SHOOT!' " and "Anyone miss the Championship?" (not many do).
"When you're in the position we are, there's always going to be criticism," Hughton says. "My remit was to make sure we stayed in this division. That's our only priority, getting over the line, however we get there." Like so many marathon runners, they can then collapse in a heap. Which ought to be possible either this evening or on Tuesday night.
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