Norwich prised a big old point out of the Stadium of Light this afternoon courtesy of a sapping, occasionally scrappy 0-0 draw against an increasingly desperate Sunderland side.
Pinned to the foot of the Premier League table, Gus Poyet’s men would have had Norwich (h) as a must win if they were ever to gain the kind of momentum they need to turn their season around in the New Year.
That was as big a point to today’s proceedings as the actual league point the Canaries returned to Norfolk with. A 93rd minute red for Wes Brown added to the sense of despair that engulfed the home faithful as their hopes of a hugely-needed win disappeared and with it another chunk of the self-belief that has to underpin any successful relegation fight.
All of which will suit Norwich fine – potentially one less relegation place to worry about as Chris Hughton’s men put six points between them and the drop zone.
Elsewhere defeats for Crystal Palace, Fulham and an imploding Cardiff City would confirm the belief that Norwich’s steady – if unspectacular – progress of late will keep them out of trouble and off the managerial merry-go-round as the January transfer window looms. There are a clutch of clubs with the ‘Crisis’ lights flashing; Carrow Road is currently relatively free from such distractions.
Chances of any real note were few and far between; Michael Turner on his return to the North-East would prove something of a rock at the heart of that much-maligned City back four.
And despite the scoreline, there was just about enough entertainment to keep the visiting customers satisfied. Norwich were big on endeavour, even if the final piece of quality – be it a final ball or a final finish – eluded them.
The Canaries certainly went into this afternoon’s festive opener with a far more balanced look as Robert Snodgrass made a welcome return to Hughton’s starting plans after five games out with a knee injury.
With Nathan Redmond away on the far side and Johan Elmander continuing to partner man of the moment Gary Hooper up front, City had a retro, 4-4-2 feel about them as they looked to keep Gus Poyet’s Black Cats pinned to the foot of the Premier League table.
There was even the sight of club record signing Ricky van Wolfswinkel returning to the bench after his lengthy toe trouble; how long it would take for the Dutch international to oust Hooper from that strike gig – or whether it would be Elmander to give way eventually – was just one of the more intriguing managerial decisions for Hughton to wrestle with over the Christmas period. And, indeed, on into the transfer window.
There was, however, no sign of either Jonny Howson or club skipper Russell Martin.
Not that the Canaries overly missed either in the game’s opening exchanges; Norwich just shading it in terms of both possession and chances – Hooper opening up an angle for Sebastien Bassong; Redmond driving into the inside left channel and drilling low; Steven Whittaker’s miscued effort whipping just beyond a well-placed Hooper.
With John Ruddy yet to make a save of note as the half-hour mark came and went, it was Fabio Borini who came the closest with a right-foot drive from 22 –yards distant that fled a couple of yards wide.
Sunderland were starting to crank up the pressure as Phil Bardsley finally got Ruddy to hurry into save in front of his right-hand upright.
Norwich needed to get themselves back on the front foot as a robust encounter began to slip away from them as half-time loomed. Martin Olsson almost gave Hooper a chance seven minutes from time; though it came all-to quickly to the City striker after a mistake from John O’Shea. Better was the shot that followed moments later that forced Vito Mannone into a decent save. All-in-all, even stevens – a contest finally balanced; one that, as ever, would need that one moment of genuine quality to decide it.
Redmond jinked his way into the corner of the Sunderland box for the final chance of the opening period. This time it was Leroy Fer forcing Mannone into action with a side-foot placer that just needed to be placed that little bit harder. Again, quality when it mattered – that was there to be finished.
It was a similar story after the break; albeit with Sunderland being the team in need of that one moment to unlock the opposition as they pressed with greater vigour and purpose.
Norwich were left pinging their hopes on a swift corner – and sticking to their guns defensively for the final half-hour.
Hooper was handed one sight of goal on the 68th minute as Snodgrass picked him out away on the far post; alas, the header was weak and wide. Not what Hughton would have hoped from his main man.
Sunderland clipped the outside of a post in the 70th minute as Brown beat Ruddy in the air in the midst of an almighty goalmouth scramble. Still nothing was giving.
On came the Wolfman for the final 15 minutes. How much his season could do with a late, late winner here. Opportunity knocked eight minutes from the end as Fer marauded forward only for van Wolfswinkel to allow Mannone to make a save from that inside left channel.
Ruddy went walkabout moments later; to his huge relief, Sunderland failed to take full advantage.
Norwich had another point to their name. Sunderland had dropped another two.