Norwich City had a post, a linesman and an almighty miss from Matthew Kilgallon to thank for their fourth straight Premier League win this afternoon as Sunderland came all-too close to ripping two points out of Chris Hughton’s hands.
The home side were 2-0 up and cruising a minute before the break courtesy of Sebastien Bassong and Anthony Pilkington only for Craig Gardner’s hopeful, 22-yard drive to elude Mark Bunn and turn the contest on its head.
For as good as they had been before the break, so Norwich were as poor after it as the whole momentum of the contest switched to the visitors.
In the end, however, their spirit saw them stumble over the finishing line with all three points still in their hands – 12th spot via a leap-frog over Fulham was also their reward for a performance that was chalk and cheese, black and white.
But one, in the end, that they got away with and, remarkably, made it four wins and four draws from their last eight Premier League games.
Almost inevitably, Norwich were unchanged for this afternoon’s contest. Given how little it has been broken of late, why would anyone seek to change it?
Even in the game’s opening minutes, you could sense that Sunderland were facing a side that knew each other’s game inside out; that a shape and a style of play had emerged of late that all concerned bought into.
Kilgallon was the first to suffer – booked within the game’s first three minutes as Grant Holt wrong-sided him and waited for the challenge to arrive. Advantage Norwich.
Five minutes later and the Canaries had turned such early possession and belief into a lead. Robert Snodgrass’ evil, whipped delivery towards the penalty box found Carlos Cuellar able to do no more than flick the ball onto the far post where Bassong arrived one step ahead of keeper Simon Mignolet to nick the ball home – his second Premier League goal in eight days as the Canaries splayed the ball around with the confidence of a side unbeaten in two months.
A goal to the good and Norwich didn’t quite press their advantage home; indeed, the next chance of note fell to Danny Rose as he tested Mark Bunn from 22-yards out with a low drive that the new City No1 had to grab smartly low to his left. For now, the Canaries were making light of John Ruddy’s thigh trouble.
They were sailing oh-so sweetly on ten minutes from the interval as Pilkington doubled their lead. Handed a one-on-one with Cuellar, the City winger cut back inside onto his traditionally weaker right foot before pinging the ball low into the bottom left corner of Mignolet’s goal.
Given the level of Sunderland’s performance till then, that looked to be enough for ‘Goodnight!’ – and another huge, home job done as the Norfolk side drove ever further upwards.
A minute before the break, however, and the contest threatened to turn on its head as Gardner picked the ball up some 25-yards out and swept the ball goalward. It wasn’t the most convincing of efforts, but it still had too much for Bunn who could only belatedly help the ball on and inside his left upright. From being home and hosed, Norwich would have to dig another big, big victory out again after the interval.
A 45 minutes that would have the added frisson of Connor Wickham’s presence as the one-time Town boy wonder replaced a largely ineffective Steven Fletcher for the Black Cats. Couple that to conceding a minute before the break and the Canaries early comfort had all-but disappeared when the two teams re-appeared.
It disappeared altogether in the 58th minute when Gardner rattled the post with a 25-yard free-kick. The ball dropped back perfectly for an unmarked Kilgallon who, with the whole width of the goal to aim at and Bunn spread-eagled on the floor, shanked his shot over the City bar as Sunderland continued to look all the better for that 44th minute strike.
Bunn needed his wits about him to deny Stephane Sessegnon in the 63rd minute; Javier Garrido had hacked off the line moments earlier. This was not the Norwich performance of the opening 45. Momentum had been well and truly lost.
A linesman’s flag rode to the rescue as Wickham snapped up the rebound off a Rose drive that Bunn failed to smother; on came Elliott Bennett to try and inject fresh pace into Norwich’s thinking as City hung on.
And hung on…