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Mar 21, 2014

Friendship put on hold as Norwich host Sunderland

There is much more than silverware at stake when Norwich City and Sunderland meet in a Premier League game to stir the soul at Carrow Road.

Shared history between these two top flight strugglers dating back to a 1985 Wembley League Cup final success for the Canaries has seen the "Friendship Trophy" contested ever since; an indelible reminder of a rare moment in the spotlight and an occasion notable for the camaraderie on the terraces during a time when hooliganism and disorder appeared to have a grip on the English game.

- Randall: Strikers’ drought hampering search for wins - Report: Diversity void disappoints Hughton

But there can be no prospect of a truce ahead of the latest episode in a noble tradition. Both clubs needs points to renew belief they can extricate themselves from the tightest survival battle for many a season.

Norwich City manager Chris Hughton needs a win to release the pressure and the scrutiny on his own ability to govern. A season of inconsistency on the field has also been marked by a sub-plot for many months surrounding his position. Hughton is now the only manager in the bottom seven to have started this Premier League season with the same club.

City's board have opted for stability in their decision to back a man who has had to periodically win the games that mattered; Sunderland is in the same category as Crystal Palace, West Ham and Hull who have all left Norfolk empty-handed.

Hughton's relative longevity after succeeding Paul Lambert in 2012 is a testament to his experience and his bravery to swim against the prevailing currents which have claimed many of his contemporaries. Sunderland boss Gus Poyet was drafted in when the experiment with the volatile Paolo Di Canio was deemed to have run its course on Wearside. Two impressive cup runs cannot disguise the reality that Sunderland are no further forward in their efforts to haul themselves clear from the bottom three in the Premier League. Games in hand at this advanced stage of the season are not the insurance that they may appear in black and white. The pressure on the Black Cats will be just as intense this weekend after failing to beat Crystal Palace at the Stadium of Light.

Norwich have a difficult finale against four of the leading contenders for the Premier League title and Champions League qualification. Factor in two consecutive heavy away league defeats and the revival has to begin this weekend, before upcoming games against Swansea, West Brom and Fulham. City's route to safety requires the bulk of the points they need to come from this defining phase of a campaign which has never really threatened to match the promise and optimism sparked by a club-record transfer outlay last summer.

The time for recriminations and reflections can wait. The search for answers to the most pressing questions must remain on hold: Why Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper have failed to translate the predatory goal output of their previous postings to aid Norwich’s cause; why last season's player-of-the-year and talisman Sebastien Bassong has increasingly looked vulnerable at the heart of City's defence; how has Hughton failed to evolve a style and an identity robust enough to build on his defensive mindset.

Right now, Norwich have to control their own destiny, starting with a special reunion.