On the bleakest of Britannia afternoons Charlie Adam’s 46th minute goal was enough to give Stoke a vital win; one that saw them leapfrog City in the table and arrive at the much heralded 40 point mark.
For the Potters, and their under-fire boss Tony Pulis, it looks to be ‘job done’ for season 2012/13, but for Chris Hughton and the Yellow Army the agony continues for another week at least.
Indeed, things would have looked even worse for City but for Emerson Boyce’s 90th minute own-goal at the DW Stadium, one that saw Tottenham earn a point from a game that looked to be heading the way of the Latics.
A league table that would have shown City four points from the drop zone, and those below them with a game in hand, now looks a whole lot better; the point differential with Wigan now six with three to play.
In short, that late twist at the DW may have a greater bearing on the final outcome than events – or non-events – at the Britannia.
Hughton made three changes from the starting XI that beat Reading; back in came Steven Whittaker and Alex Tettey at the expense of Javier Garrido and Elliott Bennett, with Ryan Bennett – as expected – in to replace the injured Michael Turner. In a 4-5-1 – Grant Holt being the lone striker – City’s line-up matched that of the Emirates; Kei Kamara taking his place wide on the right.
In a disjointed and scrappy first half there was little to entertain the neutral, with clear-cut chances virtually non-existent.
For City’s part they were unable to trouble Asmir Begovic, in the Stoke goal, with only off-target attempts from Bradley Johnson, Robert Snodgrass and Kei Kamara to show for their efforts.
The home side fared little better although, from one of several corners, City were thankful to the home side’s Steven Nzonzi, who blocked a goal-bound effort from team-mate Cameron Jerome.
Mark Bunn’s only serious contribution of the half was to comfortably save a flick-on from Peter Crouch following a speculative punt forward by Ryan Shotton.
In a 45 that horribly lacked quality and cohesion – from both sides – most of the talking points revolved around some x-rated ‘tackling’; Nzonzi, Jerome and Crouch all seeing yellow for nasty looking challenges, Grant Holt doing likewise for City.
The game’s pivotal moment – and the afternoon’s only moment of quality – came just 51 seconds into the second period and was a goal straight out of the Pulis textbook. A long diagonal into the City box was won with ease by Crouch, who knocked it into the path of the onrushing Adam. Despite being under pressure from Sebastien Bassong, the Scottish international took it in his stride and fired a low, powerful shot past a helpless Bunn.
And that was it. Game over.
City huffed and puffed for the remaining 44 minutes, but failed to muster a single shot on target. Instead, several promising attacking positions were rendered meaningless with some poor quality deliveries into the box; Begovic’s second-half being horribly reminiscent of the catching practise that keepers undertake as part of their pre-match warm-up.
Hughton made three attacking substitutions in an attempt to stir some much needed life into his side, but to no avail.
With Wes Hoolahan replacing Alex Tettey, and lining up wide on the left – Kamara joining Holt up front in a 4-4-2 – City’s boss looked to add some much needed guile to his midfield. Unfortunately it had little effect and merely highlighted the same old problem of how to get the mercurial Irishman enough of the ball when he plays out wide.
One of last week’s heroes, Elliott Bennett, was also added to the fray in place of an out-of sorts Robert Snodgrass but, despite getting himself in some useful positions, he too was unable to find quality where it’s needed most – in the final third.
Hughton’s final throw of the dice was to throw on Anthony Pilkington in place of a defender –Bassong – but it was too little too late, despite City seeing a little more of the ball.
Four minutes of added time did little to ease the nerves of the home supporters, but still City were unable to test Begovic. Instead, as the minutes ticked away, it was Norwich’s turn to feel the frustration of the ball being held in the corner at the wrong end of the pitch; Crouch and Adam giving a masterclass on how it should be done.
Pulis’ clenched fist salute at the final whistle spoke volumes of his, and his team’s relief, but City can have no complaints. A failure to manage a single shot on target in such a crucial end-of-season game provides more questions than answers.
Hughton now has seven days to find some.
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