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Apr 12, 2014

New management, same old problems

There was no trace of defeatism in the words or body language of Norwich City’s new boss Neil Adams, but Fulham’s 1-0 Premier League win felt like a fatal blow to the Canaries' survival hopes.

Adams’ side dominated for long spells but fell to Hugo Rodallega’s instinctive finish, sweeping home Lewis Holtby’s free kick five minutes before the interval. Norwich exuded a freshness and an attacking spirit largely absent in the final stages of Chris Hughton’s weary tenure, but it was not enough. At this stage of the Premier League season it is all about the context -- substance over style -- and Fulham’s streetwise edge and experienced core rode out the storm to prevail and suck Norwich firmly into danger.

The Canaries remain two points clear with a better goal difference than the Cottagers, who currently occupy the third and final relegation spot, but City now embark on a hellishly difficult finale. In all probability they must beat one of two title challengers in Liverpool and Chelsea, the dethroned champions away at Old Trafford or the FA Cup finalist and serial Champions League qualifier Arsenal. Even that may not be enough if Fulham continue their upward trajectory after Rodallega’s clinical prowess inside the penalty box secured another three points following his late strike at Villa Park the previous weekend.

Felix Magath emerged for his media briefing to concede the better side had lost. For that he was indebted to his keeper David Stockdale, who produced a sublime one-handed stop to foil Ricky van Wolfswinkel prior to Rodallega’s strike. Robert Snodgrass had also clipped the top of his bar with a free kick before Brede Hangeland and Rodallega’s desperate interventions denied Norwich a deserved equaliser after the interval. It was another hard-luck chapter in a growing story of frustration that many feel will now end in relegation to the Championship.

Much has been made of the timing of Hughton’s dismissal. Adams was afforded precious little scope to pick up the pieces, but his much-changed side was a credit to him and the 3,000 away fans who roared their appreciation by the Thames.

There was none of the rancour and recriminations directed at Hughton following a home defeat to West Brom that signalled the end of his stint the previous weekend. They realised, just like Magath perhaps, that City’s squad could not have given any more. What they lacked at the Cottage, and for the season as a whole, is a potent attacking threat. That searing focus inevitably narrows in the direction of van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper, who have failed to translate predatory goal scoring elsewhere to the more restrictive confines of the Premier League, but Norwich have simply not been good enough as a unit.

Stockdale’s defiance has been seen too many times before. David Marshall and Adrian were all that stood between Norwich and positive results at Cardiff and West Ham, respectively, earlier this year. Fulham was the latest episode in a depressing, debilitating trend that, barring a stirring finale in the weeks ahead, will underpin the club's demise.