Like most footballing clichés, the one about ‘fine margins’ can be a little annoying, but yesterday’s game proved yet again just how pertinent it is at the highest level.
If MotD’s Michael Owen or Robbie Savage had their way, we’d have likely been a goal down early on – courtesy of Bradley Johnson’s forearm block on Adam Lallana’s shot – and would have faced an uphill struggle to go on and get the win.
Equally, if the same Saints midfielder had steered his well-struck drive inside John Ruddy’s right-hand post, instead of thumping it slap bang against it, City’s task would have been made that little bit more difficult.
Luckily the gods were smiling on us and both went in City’s favour. As a result we now enter the international break sitting comfortably in eighth place ahead of a tricky run of five games that includes clashes with Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal.
We’re in decent shape.
Yet, a blast on Howard Webb’s whistle or a shot a few centimetres to the right and the mood would have been somewhat different, with plenty to mull over ahead of the trip to Tottenham in a fortnight.
What the MotD stooges failed to spot – preferring instead to trawl forensically through the Johnson ‘handball’ incident – was that two of the Premier League’s less fashionable teams had served up an enthralling ninety minutes; one that belied its lowly ranking on said programme. (They also failed to acknowledge the nailed-on ‘penalty’ for the barge on Snodgrass, but let’s not let the facts to get in the way of some anti-City rhetoric).
While the visitors took the honours for artistic impression, City edged it where it really mattered, with Nathan Redmond’s splendid strike from 20 yards springing a fairly subdued Carrow Road to life midway through that tense and twitchy second half.
Having got their noses ahead it was left to a solid defensive display to see the job through and with a fit-again Sebastien Bassong at his belligerent best, the Saints expensively assembled forward-line seldom looked like making the breakthrough.
When called upon, Ruddy was imperious, with the big man now exuding the authority of an ‘England Number One’. His command of the penalty area yesterday was exemplary and the sight of him collecting crosses at will was a joy for his defenders, the Yellow Army and, no doubt, City (and England) goalkeeping coach Dave Watson.
Hopefully his sometimes wayward distribution (just a bad day at the office in that regard) will be overlooked ahead of the England get-together; Roy Hodgson having a big decision to make ahead of the Moldova game with Joe Hart starting the new season in error prone fashion.
At least the Ruddy/Foster/Hart conundrum should be on the England manager’s radar, even if those outside of the Norfolk border (and in The Observer) appear to believe there to still be no challenger’s to Hart’s ‘number one’ mantle.
In not untypical fashion, yesterday’s performance by Michael Turner was, by some way, his best of the season so far, with Bassong again bringing out the best in him. As a pair they managed to keep the aforementioned Osvaldo and Lambert combination at arm’s length for most of the afternoon with both having just one single sight of goal.
While Turner may not be the most aesthetically pleasing centre-back in the Premier League, bolt him on to an imposing Cameroonian and you have a barrier to even the most potent attack… and long may it continue.
Another big call that paid off for Chris Hughton was his opting to slot Steven Whitaker into right-back ahead of the unfortunate Russell Martin.
The Scot served up another assured display that not only blunted the Saints attacking options down their left flank, but contributed significantly to City’s creative threat; his penchant to ‘join in’ having led to two goals already this season and a whisker away from another yesterday.
While there’s little to choose between our two Scottish international right-backs, the fact that Martin has been playing at centre-back may have counted against him on this occasion, with Whittaker’s goal count an added bonus.
Martin – the consummate professional – will be unfazed and will no doubt have a huge part to play in the weeks and months ahead. Besides… the Snakepit are given the perfect chance to sing the ‘Norfolk Cafu’ song when said gent is warming-up right in front of them.
Having said all of that, what City do still have is plenty of room for improvement.
The new players – while ‘getting there’ – are still finding their feet, and the sight of Ricky van Wolfswinkel laying prostrate on the turf upon the final blast of Webb’s whistle was a stark reminder of how physically demanding the young Dutchman is finding it. In fairness, he’s still doing all that’s being asked of him and will no doubt benefit from having an experienced Swede alongside him (on the pitch AND at Colney).
Redmond too – while being the hottest of properties right now –still has much to learn and will improve further as the demands of the Premier league become more familiar to him; likewise Leroy Fer whose physical attributes look to be a perfect fit for the Premier League battleground where the ability to ‘mix it’ is key.
Give these lads a few more games to gel with their new colleagues, give Ricky time to adjust to the intensity, throw a fit Gary Hooper into the fray and all of a sudden things are looking nice and rosy.
Enjoy the international break lads; just the small matter of ‘£78million richer’ Spurs up next.
On the Ball City…