Norwich must prove how much they want Premier League survival
Norwich City's Premier League opponents at Carrow Road Saturday, West Ham, have already played a pivotal role in their season. Now they need to mark the start of the Canaries' relegation fight-back.
Alex Neil's squad slipped into the bottom three for only the second time this season last weekend after another anaemic 2-0 defeat at Aston Villa made it five on the spin in the top flight since beating Southampton on Jan. 2.
That depressing trend leads in only one direction -- a swift return to the Football League after achieving promotion in the most glorious of circumstances via the Championship playoff final at Wembley.
Norwich's confidence and willingness to attack the task of staying in the Premier League in those encouraging early games of this season was never more apparent than their trip to Upton Park in September. City were denied a merited win not by the Hammers but John Ruddy's error in the last act of the game deep in stoppage time, when he miscued a punch at the feet of Cheik Kouyate, who lashed home a close range equaliser in a breathless 2-2 encounter.
Norwich were prepared to compete aggressively against a home team who had already won at Arsenal and Manchester City in a season which has continued to gather momentum. Slaven Bilic's squad come to Carrow Road still in the top six and through to the fifth round of the FA Cup after a gruelling extra-time 2-1 win over Liverpool in midweek.
That bruising victory has not come without a cost. The visitors travel to Norfolk minus the likes of Winston Reid, James Tomkins, Joey O'Brien and Kouyate, who suffered concussion against Jurgen Klopp's side.
Norwich need any small advantage going and although Bilic may be able to call on quality reinforcements such as Alex Song, there is no doubt the conditions look favourable for Neil's men.
Time and opportunities are running out now. Not only to end a wretched league run which punctured all of that festive optimism engendered from three league wins in four, including a first win at Manchester United since 1989. Neil said January would be a pivotal month. Norwich would emerge either comfortably in mid-table and looking to build on a successful first season of survival or embroiled in a relegation battle. Sadly, the latter prophesy has become true.
Norwich lacked any conviction or self-belief at Villa Park once Joleon Lescott had escaped the attentions of Dieumerci Mbokani to head Remi Garde's bottom side in front. Declan Rudd then rashly raced from his line to confront Gabby Agbonlahor, who guided a finish into the unguarded net. Given Rudd replaced Ruddy after a series of individual errors, notably that gaffe at Upton Park, the irony is not lost on any Norwich supporters now clamouring for the former England international's return.
Ruddy certainly has the experience and has been part of a Norwich squad who stayed up under both Paul Lambert and Chris Hughton. He is also one of the survivors from the set-up relegated in 2014. Neil recently dismissed any notion there is still scar tissue covering a sizeable rump of his squad who were with Ruddy in the trenches two years ago, but there are depressing parallels in the compliant nature Norwich are leaking goals and gifting points.
Given Norwich host fellow strugglers Newcastle United and Sunderland along with trips to Swansea City and West Brom over the run-in, the Canaries still control their own destiny but those long-suffering Norwich fans who troop to Carrow Road this weekend need a signal; a line in the sand that proves Neil's squad will stand and fight rather than meekly return to the Championship.
Paddy is the chief Norwich City correspondent for media group Archant. He has covered the Canaries for more than 10 years. Twitter: @paddyjdavitt.