Norwich waste hard work in late defeat at Leicester, adding relegation stress
Norwich City have little time to dwell on a dramatic late 1-0 Premier League defeat at leaders Leicester City, with Chelsea coming to town in midweek. Guus Hiddink's squad head to Carrow Road Tuesday buoyed by their own comeback 2-1 victory at Southampton, which was sealed just around the same moment that, in the East Midlands, Leonardo Ulloa consigned Alex Neil's men to an 89th minute loss.
The Canaries were brave and bold in their tactical approach, with the Scot dusting off the defensive back three with wing-backs formation last tried at Manchester City. The parallels between the two performances were painfully obvious. Norwich lost 2-1 at the Etihad after conceding an 89th minute penalty slammed home by Yaya Toure when John Ruddy spilled a cross. Against the Foxes, there was fresh evidence of defensive abdication to wreck so much that was positive, keeping Norwich firmly embroiled in a relegation battle.
Ruddy was superbly shielded by those in front for the vast majority, with Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy only a sporadic influence for Claudio Ranieri's title challengers. But whether it was fatigue or the enormity of how close Norwich were to gaining a priceless point in their survival scrap, Mahrez was able to find the unmarked Marc Albrighton who in turn crafted a low cross bundled home by the unmarked Ulloa from close range.
Norwich stayed out of the bottom three on goal difference ahead of Chelsea's visit thanks to Newcastle United being idle this weekend, but a lack of defensive resolve, allied to more hesitancy in the final third, deprived them of some much-needed breathing space.
Cameron Jerome perhaps typifies Norwich's honest brand of endeavour while also highlighting the technical limitations that are curbing their bid for upward mobility. Jerome plundered 21 goals last season, the focal point of Norwich's promotion success. This time around, he has only three.
On his day, he can cause the best Premier League defenders discomfort but there are numerous occasions when the gulf between the two leagues looks beyond him. Kasper Schmeichel denied the powerful striker in a one-on-one duel; you could almost sense the lack of conviction from the Norwich forward as he approached the Foxes' keeper. Jerome also glanced a header wide from barely four yards after rising unchallenged to meet Robbie Brady's corner.
As his manager made clear after the match, had Jerome or the impressive Nathan Redmond nudged the visitors in front, that palpable anxiety in the Leicester ranks after the manner of their 2-1 defeat last time out at title rivals Arsenal may have offered the Canaries a potentially winning hand. Instead, Leicester gradually asserted a measure of authority in the final quarter as Ranieri introduced Jeffrey Schlupp and Ulloa in a quest for a greater attacking thrust.
Neil opted to keep Dieumerci Mbokani on the bench and bring on Patrick Bamford only after Norwich had fallen behind. The Scot reasoned that Jerome and Redmond had caused the Foxes plenty of problems to that point; while it was difficult to counter his assertion, the tactical interplay on the touchline again left Neil looking reactive in competition with the wily Ranieri.
Hiddink is cut from the same mould, an experienced operator who will react if he senses any weakness from Norwich at Carrow Road. The equation remains largely unaltered for the Canaries. They need wins to haul themselves clear of danger. In that regard, losing at Leicester was another missed opportunity but there were plenty of underlying positives.
The only currency that holds any value now, however, is three points and given the Dutchman's success in galvanising a gifted squad since his mid-season arrival, the Canaries may have to look beyond Chelsea. Next weekend comes a pivotal league trip to fellow strugglers Swansea, where Norwich bid to finally inject some momentum into their bid for another season of Premier League football.
Paddy is the chief Norwich City correspondent for media group Archant. He has covered the Canaries for more than 10 years. Twitter: @paddyjdavitt.