Benjamin Disraeli’s famous jape about lies and damned lies may be a long-standing calumny upon serious statisticians, but the statistics that encrust sport can be as misleading as they are absorbing; there were a few intriguing ones to conjure with, however, before Norwich City kicked off against Sunderland.
The most startling was the one which said Sunderland had not won a Premier League game against a side comprising a full complement of 11 players since beating Liverpool on 10 March. There was also the fact that Chris Hughton’s Norwich had tightened up their defensive qualities to such good effect in recent weeks that since shipping nine goals in two games against Liverpool and Chelsea they had conceded only four in the succeeding eight matches, beating Arsenal, Stoke City and Manchester United all by the margin of 1-0 in their previous three home league games. And here they were facing the side whose total of 36 attempts on target all season was the lowest of any team in the division.
The clear conclusion from this evidence was that Hughton’s side had only to avoid a red card to achieve another narrow but useful victory; and a narrow victory it indeed turned out to be, but only after the Canaries had survived a second-half onslaught in which Sunderland might have earned at least a point had their finishing matched the intensity of their approach play.
Norwich fielded a side unchanged from the one which drew in midweek at Southampton, while Sunderland had only one alteration from their goalless draw with Queen’s Park Rangers, Martin O’Neill’s, right, selection of James McClean in place of the injured Lee Cattermole reducing their combativeness while arguably increasing their creativity.
The first serious attempt at goal was Sunderland’s, the England winger Adam Johnson wandering in from the right to strike a left-foot shot that rose over the far angle of crossbar and post. The first goal, however, was plundered by Norwich defender Sebastien Bassong, creeping ahead of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to steer a volley past him from two yards range in the eighth minute after Robert Snodgrass aimed a free-kick into the box from the right wing. The strong suspicion of offside was annulled by the fact that the last touch before Bassong’s belonged to the Sunderland defender Carlos Cuellar, whose attempt to beat Grant Holt in the air resulted in the ball coming off his arm – if not a goal, it should have been a penalty for handball.
Sunderland eventually added to that meagre shots-on-target tally after 27 minutes when a sharp left-footer from Danny Rose was equally sharply saved by Mark Bunn, who dropped to his left to gather the ball safely almost on his line. Up to that point it seemed a too-rare moment of entertainment in a first half in which the two sides mostly cancelled each other out in a congested midfield.
Norwich, however, produced something of genuine quality and spirit to warm their supporters on a bitterly cold afternoon when Anthony Pilkington scored their second goal after 36 minutes. An excellent long pass over the Sunderland back line from Bradley Johnson still left Pilkington with plenty to do, but he did it with confidence, running into the penalty area before wrong-footing Cuellar and switching inside onto his right foot to shoot beyond Mignolet into the far corner of the net.
A minute before the break Sunderland produced their own statistical oddity with a goal from someone other than Steven Fletcher – and it was a beauty, fired left-footed low into the far corner from just outside the area by Craig Gardner after excellent work by Adam Johnson.
Fletcher, who went into the game already suffering from an ankle knock, was replaced at half-time by Connor Wickham, whose status as a former Ipswich Town player ensured him of a warmly hostile reception from the Norfolk fans. And Wickham played his part as Sunderland began the second half much more positively and at a higher tempo than either side had played in the first. He it was who earned the free-kick from which Gardner struck the post with a thunderous 30-yarder, Matthew Kilgallon scooping the rebound over just when an equaliser seemed certain.
Norwich, so comfortable for most of the first half, were now living dangerously and were again fortunate when Stephane Sessegnon shot straight at Bunn from a promising position 10 yards out. Goalscorer Bassong became City’s saviour after 72 minutes when he made a brilliant interception in front of his own goal to prevent Wickham from finishing off a swift, incisive move involving Sessegnon and Rose. Shortly afterwards a ferocious long shot from Rose rebounded off Bunn’s chest to Wickham, who netted it but was immediately, and rightly, ruled offside.
Norwich had been reduced for most of the second half to a counter-attacking role, and Elliott Bennett had only just replaced Snodgrass on the right when his quick run and good cross created a difficult chance for Holt, who could only lift the home side’s last chance of making the game safe over the crossbar.