It’s been said many times… football has this unforgiving knack of bringing you crashing back to earth. To put you in your place the second you start acting and thinking a little too far ahead.
While we hope and pray that the footballing gods will look down kindly upon us when we enter the likes of Old Trafford and the Etihad, the pragmatists point to the plain facts. In United’s case, they’d won twelve consecutive Premier League home games prior to yesterday.
I guess it shouldn’t have been, but it was still more than a little surprising to see the number of tweeters, ‘message-boarders’ and bloggers who were predicting a City win – some going for a two goal win. One assumes this optimism was borne of the ‘bounce’ afforded us all by the Everton win and that Real Madrid await United on Tuesday night.
As it happened of course the outcome bore an uncanny resemblance to that early October afternoon in West London when Chelsea put City to the sword in a similar way – the only difference being Grant Holt had the audacity to fire City ahead that day before Lampard, Torres and co restored order by scoring four times with no further reply.
As hard as it is to accept, or even to watch on occasions, we are where we are. On any given Carrow Road day we’ve proved we can live with the best – especially when the team and crowd are perfectly in sync – but on the road is a different matter. Especially so in the heady confines of Manchester, Merseyside and London where the norm is an afternoon or evening of stoic, ‘all hands on deck’ defending.
Occasionally the trend is bucked – White Hart Lane last April being the obvious example – but, like it or not, this current iteration of Norwich City is not ready to go toe-to-toe with the big boys on a regular basis.
If the medium term plans of Messrs Bowkett and McNally come to fruition then maybe we can do so in the not too distant future… who knows… but we’re not there yet, not even close.
As painful as it was – and there’s no doubt it was infuriating at times – yesterday was a perfect snapshot of reality. A gulf in class and quality that was evident from the second minute when some typically neat City inter-play worked Bradley Johnson into that exquisite crossing position. What followed was neither pretty nor clever, and I’m not expecting the Johnson Sky+ box to have been in action last night.
As unfair as it is to single out poor old Bradders – he did get himself in that advanced position after all – you can’t help but think there’d have been a different end result if that same crossing opportunity had been afforded to Fergie’s finest.
And therein lies the issue. Quality.
That Hughton has assembled a good, honest, hardworking group is not in doubt and in the less refined surroundings of the Championship the team would contain sufficient pockets of class and quality to shine. The Premier League alas is a very different kettle of fish and against the elite of the professional game the passing does occasionally look a little laboured, the first touch is sometimes a little heavy and the ball retention under pressure does sometimes break down.
That doesn’t mean we have poor players; quite the opposite in fact – we have some very good players – but when faced with the game’s elite good isn’t always enough.
Yesterday was a perfect example.
The endeavour, tenacity, willingness and sheer bloody mindedness on show were precisely what the gaffer had ordered and, minus a poor old Steve Morison to single out, I didn’t hear too many moans about lack of effort.
Most of the negativity seems to have been confined to City’s perceived lack of ambition, with those two banks of four seemingly a little too intent on staying perfectly in line for many. In fairness to Hughton, while I’m sure his wish for a cohesive defensive display was clearly part of the masterplan, I’m sure he also had hoped that we’d at least force De Gea to get his gloves a little dirty.
To have been on the receiving end of a 10-0 shot count is disappointing whatever the circumstances; I’m not about to pretend otherwise.
Hughton will argue – and did in fact – that, but for a fairly disastrous final fifteen minutes, his approach was justified. If instead of Kagawa making the game safe with his second City had, from somewhere, nicked a 76th minute goal then it would have been ‘game on’. As it was the legs and minds tired – unsurprising given the one-way traffic they’d been enduring – and the Old Trafford scoreboard racked up a score that suggested a hammering.
Like I said… football has a knack of doing that. Buoyed by the Everton win and its accompanying adrenalin rush we were all a little guilty of getting carried away. Some (ahem) even suggested that the proximity of United’s return leg with Real Madrid may impact on their desire to get the job done against City. As if…
But onwards and upwards folks. While away games in Manchester are not pivotal to our Premier League future, home games against Southampton most definitely are.
My gut tells me we’re going to be treated to some more #heartshapedhands. Let’s hope it’s more reliable this week.