Norwich City this afternoon produced the best performance of their Premier League season to date to inflict a stunning home defeat on Champions League hopefuls Spurs and duly confirm their place in the top flight next season.
With Norwich now sat on 43 points courtesy of a remarkable and richly deserved 2-1 success at White Hart Lane, QPR and Blackburn are now 15 points distant – with just six Premier League games to avoid the drop.
Given the respective goal differences between the three clubs, that 15-point advantage is effectively 16. Fail to beat Liverpool at home tomorrow night and Rovers will be in no position to over-take the Norfolk side; likewise, QPR must win against Swansea City at Loftus Road on Wednesday evening to deny the Canaries the mother of all ‘Staying up!’ parties when they host title hopefuls Manchester City at Carrow Road next Saturday.
At which point Canary chief Paul Lambert will, finally, have to agree with the maths and concede that Norwich are, indeed, staying firmly put in the top flight of English football.
“That was phenomenal,” was Lambert’s simple verdict to the BBC afterwards, as he savoured a result and a performance that will be treasured down the years.
“From start to finish, I thought we were absolutely brilliant,” added the Scot. “And as I’ve just said to them in there, I’ve seen some big games in my time, but that was absolutely colossal performance.”
Goals either side of the break from the returning Anthony Pilkington and Elliott Bennett gave City an Easter to remember – it could have been more as skipper Grant Holt was denied a clear-cut penalty following an ill-timed challenge-stroke-rugby tackle from Ledley King.
Though he failed to add to his own individual goal tally this season, whether the 30-year-old’s overall performance did enough to mark Harry Redknapp’s card with regard to the forthcoming Euro2012 tournament remains to be seen.
For one thing, the Spurs boss has to be given the full England gig; for another Holt has to stay fit and in the limelight between now and May. But as the ‘Grant Holt For England’ campaign continues to gather pace, today’s result will have done his prospects no harm as the Canaries forced their way back into the top half of the Premier League table.
“That was an absolute stone wall penalty – how that’s not been given, I don’t know,” said Lambert afterwards, his relations with young Premier League referee Michael Oliver unlikely to have improved since events at Reading (a) last season.
“That wouldn’t have looked out of place at Murrayfield,” said Lambert, warming to his theme. “Anywhere round the world that was a penalty. And I think everyone in the stadium knew it.”
Redknapp certainly did as he gave every credit to Norwich for the level of their performance in his own back-yard.
“All credit to them,” he said simply. “I thought they worked very hard. I thought they were excellent.”
As expected, Lambert made a clutch of changes following the sapping 2-2 draw with Everton on Saturday.
Aaron Wilbraham was handed a start alongside Holt as Lambert re-jigged his midfield for the inevitable test that would await down The Lane.
Matching width for width, he threw Bennett and Pilkington into the fray with Bradley Johnson left in the supporting role alongside Saturday’s goal-scorer Jonny Howson.
All four rose to the occasion in superb fashion as Pilkington bagged his eighth Premier League goal of the season, before Bennett grabbed his first strike of the season with a total peach to wipe out Jermain Defoe’s 33rd minute leveller and to cap a magnificent individual performance from the one-time Brighton winger.
The fact that he also had to double up defensively on Gareth Bale with Russell Martin merely added to a very special day for the 23-year-old. Neither Bennett nor Pilkington bothered with The Championship; both have made the leap from League One to the Premier look easy.
Mention too must go to another England hopeful in John Ruddy who clawed away a near-certain goal in the 53rd minute from Benoit Assou-Ekotto as new-boy Ryan Bennett and Elliott Ward, by and large, kept Spurs at arm’s distance from the City goal.
The interesting point is the impact that both Howson and Ryan Bennett have already had on their season; four points from Everton (h) and Spurs (a) is an astonishing return – and both players have been centre stage. It all bodes very, very well for 2012-2013.
“I’ve got some really brilliant players – and they’re young,” Lambert noted. “And they want to learn. And they want to keep going.”