Despite being accused by some of getting little right of late, when he commented – post Wigan – of the Premier League’s ‘fine margins’ Chris Hughton smacked the nail squarely on the head.
In the same way the split-second decision making of a defender or striker can win or lose three points, the twists and turns of the Premier League run-in can hinge on similarly marginal calls.
If Arouna Koné’s 80th minute strike had fizzed the wrong side of Lee Camp’s near-post, City would now be looking at a fairly comfortable seven-point cushion. Better still, if either Kei Kamara’s or Bradley Johnson’s second half efforts had nudged the Canaries ahead at the DW, the course of the game could have been altered sufficiently for them to return with the three points – and we would now be purring over an almost unassailable ten point gap from the bottom three.
All ifs and buts of course and, alas, totally irrelevant – we are where we are and, no matter how many times I gaze at the league table, we still remain the equivalent of a win and a draw away from the drop-zone.
Interestingly – and I confess at this point to some hardcore straw-clutching – despite coming off the back of a run of one win in fourteen, and having managed just seven wins all season, there are still six teams worse off than City.
QPR and Reading, to all intents and purposes, are out of the equation – even old H can’t possibly ‘wheel n deal’ away such a deficit (can he?) – leaving Aston Villa, Wigan, Sunderland, Newcastle and ourselves to scrap over that final relegation spot. In truth Stoke could also be included in that mini-league but their vastly superior goal-difference is, in effect, worth an extra point to them.
The much peddled theory that those at the bottom miraculously find some form at this time of the season may ring true for Wigan – currently 8th in the official Premier league form guide – but it’s a very different story for the other ‘contenders’. In fact, for what it’s worth, the bottom eight places of said guide are occupied by seven of the teams in the relegation scrum; Swansea – Saturday’s opponents – being the sole fly in the ointment courtesy of their recent run of four defeats in five.
So, before we all sink into the depths of despair, we’re not alone.
Sunderland – seemingly the favourites to be City’s main rivals for the ‘third spot’ – have already hit the panic button, and have gone for the ultimate sink or swim gamble. In conversation with a Sunderland supporting commentator it seems the general feeling in the North-East is that it could either be a triumph or a disaster with no middle ground. ‘Brave, but very risky’, was how he described it, and it’s difficult to argue.
If Di Canio’s obvious enthusiasm is as infectious as the Sunderland board are hoping, then the Italian could yet find himself a Mackem hero despite the unhealthy baggage that appears to accompany him.
Newcastle – for most of the season, fellow occupants of the crowded mid-table – continue to follow City’s path, albeit with the added distraction of the Europa League. While, on paper, Alan Pardew’s not inconsiderable transfer activity in January looked to have given the Geordies a much needed boost, results of late have seen them dragged City-like to the edge of the brown stuff. Having drawn just six games all season, their make-or-break style has simply ended in defeat too often.
Despite Pardew’s assertions to the contrary, one suspects the success or otherwise of their two-legged Europa League quarter-final with Benfica will have a significant bearing on their run-in.
Not for the first time the wild-card is held in the palm of a ruddy-faced Scot. Paul Lambert’s Villa – Sunday’s narrow defeat at home to Liverpool aside – have been resurgent, and three wins in the last six suggests a team on an upward curve. What Lambert does have at his disposal – unlike other managers in the ‘dogfight’ – is a forward-line that carries a serious threat; the triumvirate of Benteke, Weimann and Agbonlahor looking as dangerous as any strike-force in the league right now.
If our ex-favourite Scot can motivate his youngsters sufficiently to outscore all those before them – I’m not expecting too many clean-sheets – then Villa present a real and present danger to all of their relegation rivals.
While it’s still a month away, I can’t be alone in thinking the footballing gods are wringing their hands in anticipation of Villa’s Carrow Road visit on Saturday 4 May. I suspect it won’t be one for the faint-hearted.
I won’t dwell for long on the predictable Wigan revival – too painful – but I’m still to be convinced that their FA Cup journey won’t yet have an impact on their survival hopes. Their run-in is traditionally free of any distractions; this year’s won’t be.
All of which brings into sharp focus City’s four remaining home games – starting on Saturday. The remaining three away games look to be of the ‘bonus’ variety – including that bruising trip to the Britannia – meaning the theoretical six points required for nirvana will most likely need to be acquired within the confines of Carrow Road.
When presented with his first Norwich City fixture list, back in June 2012, Hughton will have looked at the final few home games of the season – Swansea, Reading, Aston Villa and West Brom – and considered each to be winnable.
And in that regard, nothing has changed.
If we can do our bit, and get Carrow Road rocking, then it’ll be down to Hughton’s eleven to do the rest.
Swansea are going to be there for the taking. Let’s believe.