Gary Hooper’s first Premier League goal since Boxing Day and a late header from Robert Snodgrass ensured that the Canaries at least went down all guns blazing this afternoon as Liverpool’s irresistible charge towards the Premier League title wobbled briefly in the midst of their eventual 3-2 success.
In fairness to Neil Adams’ men they could have slipped beneath the red waves entirely after goals from Raheem Sterling and – inevitably – Luis Suarez put Liverpool two goals ahead within the game’s opening 12 minutes.
But the Canaries rallied, refused to roll over and drove on to claim a brief foothold in the game nine minutes after the restart. Sterling added a second from the swiftest and slickest of counters, only for the home side to find fresh resolve and drag a second goal out of the contest with Snodgrass’ firm header.
Huff and puff as all might, Norwich couldn’t prise a third out of a compelling encounter and they remain peering over the edge; three games left to keep Fulham, Cardiff and Co two points distant.
For the daunting visit of the champions elect, Adams merely revisited the challenges of old when it came to that troubled front-line as Ricky van Wolfswinkel returned to the bench to be replaced by Hooper.
The latter had, at least, scored since the opening ten minutes of the season. Albeit not since Boxing Day. But his return to the starting line-up again only served to highlight Norwich’s greatest Achilles Heel. The one that had dogged them all season; the one that left them so close to the abyss.
Nathan Redmond offered a rare bit of pace up front; once again there was no sign of Chris Hughton’s skipper Sebastien Bassong. He, you strongly suspected, was not one to have a foot in the Adams’ camp as the Canaries continued to slump ever further into the mire.
Indeed, the latter’s best-laid plans lasted little more than five minutes before the big red machine rolled on and their 94th goal of an extraordinary Premier League season rocked Norwich back onto their heels.
It was Sterling who set the party in motion with a fabulous effort to the top corner as Liverpool purred into life. Five minutes later and the inevitable happened.
Sterling this time turned provider with the perfect, low cross behind Michael Turner where his Lordship awaited to tuck the simplest of chances beyond a wholly beaten John Ruddy.
It was Suarez’ 30th goal of the season; his 12th against Norwich. The 30 goals was four more than City have scored in total in the Premier League this season; why one side was heading north; the other firmly south.
Two goals down within the space of the opening 11 minutes. Adams’ worst nightmares were coming to life as Brendan Rodgers’ men ripped into their hosts with all the confidence and swagger of a side within touching distance of the title.
Certainly there appeared to be little hope of Sunderland-like heroics from Norwich; Hooper had the briefest sight of goal off a Turner knockdown in the 18th minute. But having dug the ball out of from under his feet, so Joe Allen’s timely challenge that slammed the door shut.
Such ‘chances’ were going to be few and far between.
In fairness, Norwich didn’t slip too quietly into the night as the first-half progressed. Both Jonny Howson and Robert Snodgrass remained willing as City pushed on. But with an imperious Steven Gerrard sat in front of that back four, revelling in the prospect of finally claiming a Premier League title, so somehow you sensed that both fate and history weren’t on Norwich’s side.
And with Suarez floating about the place, the odds on Liverpool grabbing a third were always going to be short.
Nine minutes after the interval and – finally – Hooper struck the mark as Norwich clawed their way back into the contest. He might have had a helping hand – or rather a lack of one – from the Liverpool keeper, but to be just one goal distant with 35 minutes of the contest still remaining was more than most could have expected.
Certainly after those opening ten minutes when everything was going to the Rodgers’ script.
It was a hope that sprang eternal for all of eight minutes before the Canaries found themselves once again two goals distant. Pushing on to the front foot always invited the counter and against a team of Liverpool’s wit and whip, the danger was ever present.
Cue Sterling’s second goal of the contest as the visitors whipped the ball downfield and found a third finish. Who needs Daniel Sturridge?
Bradley Johnson, Russell Martin and young Redmond would all have a pop as Snodgrass continued to fight the good fight. If nothing else, Adams was starting to find out who were the real characters left at his disposal – characters whose depth of resolve will be tested to the limit by the club’s final three fixtures.
Snodgrass, in particular, refuses to go nowhere quietly as his late header attested. And if there were ever a moment for RvW to re-write his own personal history, this was it as he replaced Hooper with 12 minutes of normal time remaining.
Alas nothing dropped for the less-than-flying Dutchman and it may now all go down to the very wire and that Arsenal home game on the final day of the season. And character isn’t always one of the Gunners’ strength.
But it is the slimmest of straws for the Canary faithful to cling to.