City boss Chris Hughton was tonight feeling the warm, grateful glow that comes with a ten-game unbeaten run in the English Premier League following a second, successive festive defeat – albeit by the odd, lone goal to European Champions Chelsea.
Juan Mata’s pin-point strike seven minutes from the interval proved the difference as Chelsea kept their own, faint title hopes alive with today’s 1-0 win at Carrow Road.
But coming on the back of Saturday’s 2-1 away defeat at West Bromwich Albion, it left the Canaries sat back in 11th spot this evening – still, however, a good ten points distant from the relegation zone where Reading, QPR, Wigan and Southampton all failed to win.
For them it remains a bleak mid-winter.
For Norwich it is that ten-point cushion with exactly half the season remaining that should see the Canaries safely across the finishing line sometime next spring. Something that boss Hughton was extremely grateful for this weekend given that next up on his Christmas calendar are reigning Premier League champions Manchester City.
“This is when you appreciate it the most,” said Hughton tonight. “[At the time] you always want to under-state it because you’re always thinking about the next games.
“But it is a wonderful thing to go ten undefeated in this division – for any team. And the value of it is showing now.”
Though skipper Grant Holt made a welcome return to Hughton’s starting plans after missing the trip to The Hawthorns with a hamstring strain, it was actually Sebastien Bassong who came closest to prising a leveller out of the contest with a late, downward header that flew up and over Petr Cech’s bar.
For City were never out of today’s contest, even if it proved to be a day more devoted to graft than craft. They certainly fared a whole lot better than Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa who left West London on the back of an 8-0 caning last weekend.
Equally, it needed a precise, 25-yard strike of the highest quality from Mata to deny Norwich a share of the spoils; the ball pinging in off Mark Bunn’s right-upright.
But on the back of the similarly narrow defeat against West Brom, Hughton insisted that standards hadn’t slipped that far of late; Norwich were just falling the other side of those tiny margins that can decide games at this high level.
“The positive thing for us is that we’ve lost a real tough away game at West Brom that are going very, very well by one goal and we’ve lost to a side of the quality of Chelsea by one goal today – and were really in it,” he told BBC Radio Norfolk afterwards.
“So the margins are quite small. And some of the margins have been going in our favour in that run – at the moment, they’re not. And we’ve got to try and turn them back in our favour.”
Back at Carrow Road on Saturday when Manchester City – smarting from today’s 1-0 away defeat at Sunderland – look to keep neighbours United within their sights after the latter’s thrilling 4-3 win over Newcastle.
Hughton will, at least, have a fully-fit squad to select from in the sense that he had no new injury worries to report this evening.
The bigger question will be one of tiredness after two, sapping games in four days; that and which Manchester City side shows up in Norfolk.
Hughton was working on the simple basis of it being Chelsea-esque again as the Canaries look to re-light their late autumn fire and push themselves ever closer that magic, 40-point finishing mark.
“Man City will come here in three days time with the same type of quality – so, no, it doesn’t get any easier,” he admitted.
“We’ll just need to show the same endeavour as we did today on Saturday, but if we get that little bit more fortune and that little bit more quality where it matters then, hopefully, we can get a result.”