Norwich out to prove progress against struggling Southampton
Southampton dished out one of Norwich City's most painful Premier League lessons this season, but the Carrow Road return on Saturday will show how much the Canaries have learned since.
Alex Neil's squad are striving to complete a productive festive spell which has brought six points from nine and a renewed belief they can survive in their first season back at the top table.
But Neil himself recently labelled the first half of the campaign as a rollercoaster ride of epic highs and brutal lows. Norwich's 3-0 defeat at St Mary's in late August can be filed in the latter category. City could point to Steven Whittaker's first half dismissal -- after two rash yellow cards inside three minutes -- but in truth the visitors were already on the back foot.
Cameron Jerome miscued a close range header in a rare moment of alarm for Ronald Koeman's side before Graziano Pelle's opener just before half-time triggered a routine home win. Dusan Tadic struck a second half brace and only John Ruddy's defiance prevented a heavier defeat. Tadic and Sadio Mane, in particular, were hugely impressive that afternoon with their trickery and direct thrust in wide areas simply too good for the Canaries.
It was an early reminder of how high the bar is in the Premier League for Neil's newly-promoted side. Few, if any, would have forecast Norwich will move within a point of the Saints with another festive fillip at Carrow Road.
That may say much about the struggles of Koeman's squad to emulate last season's impressive top seven finish, but it also underlines Norwich's rate of progress.
Away days like that suffered at Southampton have been few and far between; City have remained a competitive entity and there is enough evidence to suggest they are eradicating those basic individual errors which checked early-season momentum.
Declan Rudd's patience in goal has brought a rich dividend, with a string of impressive performances after Ruddy paid for one gaffe too many. That was a big call from Neil during Norwich's prolonged fallow period through autumn, but the 24-year-old keeper has brought a sense of calm and assurance to the Norwich backline.
Ryan Bennett is another given an extended run in the starting line up alongside Seb Bassong. The central defensive duo have had their uncomfortable moments -- Watford's Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo were too good in the Hornets' 2-0 home win and Harry Kane delivered a masterclass in Tottenham's Boxing Day 3-0 romp --but City will not be the last side to suffer against some of the Premier League's most potent predators.
Neil may be the youngest top flight manager yet there is maturity to his outlook which has insulated Norwich from such heavy blows. Neil has an acute sense of where he is going with his club and how to get there. Even the dark days do not appear to induce self-doubt.
Neil has pragmatically tweaked Norwich's approach from the early, swashbuckling outlook that successfully carried them out of the Championship to a more reactive strategy. Indeed, Norwich have beaten both Swansea and, crucially, Aston Villa at Carrow Road by preying on the insecurities of both rivals. Villa dominated possession in Monday's 2-0 league defeat but it was the hosts who carried the attacking edge.
It would hardly come as a surprise if Neil adopts a similar outlook to try and frustrate Saints, who arrive in Norfolk with only one league win in their last eight (albeit a 4-0 hammering of Arsenal). Koeman is also without the totemic presence of Pelle, through whom so much of the threat came in the corresponding league fixture.
The conditions look favourable for City to claim what would be their first back-to-back Premier League wins of the campaign. Achieve that and you can take it as another sign of clear progress.
Paddy is the chief Norwich City correspondent for media group Archant. He has covered the Canaries for more than 10 years. Twitter: @paddyjdavitt.