A sensational, 30-yard strike from Alexander Tettey inspired Norwich to a crucial 2-0 win over a poor and increasingly ragged Sunderland side at Carrow Road this afternoon.
It left the Canaries seven points clear of the drop zone with a 38-point finishing line now just two, tantalising wins away. As importantly, it kicked the Black Cats in the teeth belief-wise as they slumped ever further into the mire.
And with the likes of Cardiff and Fulham similarly falling to big, morale-sapping defeats, there were a clutch of teams beneath Chris Hughton’s men with far more to worry about form and fortune-wise going into the business end of the season.
Robert Snodgrass set City on their way to a well-deserved victory with a neat, 20th minute finish only to find himself wholly over-shadowed by Tettey’s wonder goal – one that will be a genuine Goal of the Season contender when Match of the Day go to work on it this evening.
It all ensured that the visitors barely troubled John Ruddy; their afternoon summed up by a second yellow for Marcus Alonso deep into stoppage time – their seventh of an ill-tempered season.
For what was a ‘must win’ game by anyone standards, Hughton threw considerable caution to the wind by throwing Johan Elmander and Ricky van Wolfswinkel up top and welcoming Jonny Howson back into the middle of the park with Wes Hoolahan handed licence to roam away on the left.
With Bradley Johnson paying the price for his off-colour efforts at St Mary’s last weekend and Sebastien Bassong returning to the heart of the City defence, it was probably as good as it was going to get attacking-wise – albeit if Elmander and van Wolfswinkel had mustered just two goals between them all season.
The arguments as to whether Gary Hooper was worthy of a nod ahead of either of his misfiring team-mates could be shelved for a couple of hours; if Elmander added a second to his opening strike last weekend or van Wolfswinkel found the net to double his Premier League haul for the season en route to three huge points, Hughton would have made the right call.
City certainly started the brighter of the two and were swiftly enjoying the better of the possession as Hoolahan, in particular, began to enjoy himself.
Indeed, it was the Dubliner’s wide ball to Martin Olsson that set Norwich on their way to a 20th minute opener. The full-back’s sweeping ball through the Sunderland six-yard box found a centre-half and a goalkeeper looking for each other to claim. A half-hit clearance then allowed Elmander to simply pick out Snodgrass with a neat, angled ball towards the penalty spot and the Scottish international finished sweetly into the bottom corner for his fifth league goal of the season.
Should Norwich survive, the 26-year-old will have done more than most to keep them afloat.
It prompted a decent spell of football from the hosts as they sought to end the contest within the first half-hour; they had verve, had movement, had delivery.
What they didn’t have was that second goal – van Wolfswinkel, in particular, spurning an ideal chance in the 26th minute to double Norwich’s advantage only to let the ball whip right across him when the simplest of diversions would hammered another nail into the visitors’ own survival hopes.
When the history of this troubled season is eventually written, Howson’s back injury ought to figure large. As should the lengthy absence of Tettey.
Because on the 33rd minute the latter pulled something utterly magical out of the hat to set Carrow Road ablaze and drive Norwich further away from the relegation mire.
A looping, defensive header out of the Sunderland box looked to have cleared any lingering threat as the ball dropped lazily to the Norwegian international some 30 yards distant. He could not have hit the ball any sweeter as it rocketed high into the far corner for a genuine Goal of the Season contender.
It was all Norwich deserved for their impressive start and – for once – put a little clear, blue water between them and the opposition.
The sight of Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet making two changes five minutes before the interval summed up his fury and frustration; the Black Cats had been second best all over the pitch and had been rightly punished.
The second-half opened with van Wolfswinkel at least stretching Sunderland keeper Vito Mannone as Norwich looked to keep the pedal to the metal in their quest to keep themselves out of trouble at the foot of the Premier League table. Or rather to get as many points on the board now before those four, formidable final fixtures of the season kicked in.
Sunderland, however, had come out with ears burning – and responded accordingly. They were swifter to the tackle and smarter in possession as Norwich found their first-half momentum slipping away.
With 20 minutes left van Wolfswinkel departed for Hooper; the Dutchman’s afternoon over without again scoring another goal.
In the event, of course, Messrs Snodgrass and Tettey had papered over such cracks and the Canaries were giving themselves a fighting chance to avoid the big drop. Fulham (a) might – and not for the first time – be the key to their survival ambitions.
Certainly on the evidence of today’s efforts, three points off West Brom (h) should be well within their capabilities.
Of course, Norwich aren’t the only team with tricky fixtures to come. After this Sunderland head to Anfield. On their current form, that won’t be for a faint heart.