Norwich and Alex Neil reach make or break in Prem survival fight
You sense Norwich City have passed the trepidation phase in their Premier League survival fight. Now it really is all or nothing, starting with Manchester City's visit to Carrow Road Saturday.
Forget the fact City are still realistically on the fringes of the title race and need the three points just as badly as Alex Neil's strugglers, who have won none of their previous nine Premier League games and now appear embroiled in a battle with Newcastle United and Sunderland, to avoid joining the doomed Aston Villa in the Championship.
Forget too, Manchester City have dispensed some heavy beatings in the Premier League era. Four years ago they pitched up in Norfolk and were majestic in a 6-1 league win. They topped that under Chris Hughton in a 7-0 victory at the Etihad Stadium in 2013 that barely did justice to their dominance.
Then there is Sergio Aguero. The prolific Argentine international has scored every time he has set foot on the Carrow Road pitch. The 27-year-old rifled Manchester City on their way to a routine FA Cup third round 3-0 win back in January with the opening goal to make it three in three on Norfolk soil, or six in six career meetings with Norwich.
Pull all those strands together, and the current parlous state of Norwich's fragile Premier League status, and you might expect genuine fear to have gripped those within and without the Canaries' camp. The mood, however, appears still one of belief rather than resignation, perhaps fuelled by similar negative vibes swirling around both Newcastle and Sunderland.
Neil made the point after last weekend's latest bitter 1-0 defeat at Swansea City his club's destiny is still effectively in their own hands, given both their direct rivals must travel to Carrow Road before the end of the season. That is a remarkable state of affairs after taking just one point from the last 27 available.
Ending that wretched record is the priority, not worrying about the threat in their midst this weekend. Norwich cannot afford to treat Manuel Pellegrini's side as a free shot ahead of more eminently more winnable games over the run-in. That insurance policy of three festive wins from four which eased Norwich into a relatively comfortable position above the relegation places has rapidly dissolved. Now every one of the remaining nine games offers a chance for precious momentum.
Only the naïve or the deluded would argue the odds on Norwich surviving have lengthened considerably. The pessimists would feel Steve McClaren's Newcastle exit after a protracted saga in recent days only further reduces Norwich's chances of hauling themselves away from the Magpies.
Neil and many Norwich's fans clearly felt the corner was in sight during recent weeks after some genuine hard luck stories in a late 1-0 defeat at Leicester City, followed by a controversial 2-1 home defeat to champions Chelsea, who owed their three points to Diego Costa's burst from a clear offside position not spotted by the assistant but by almost everyone else inside Carrow Road.
That groundswell of optimism, however, drained away in a dire second half showing in Wales last weekend. All the pressure and the alarming nature of Norwich's predicament appeared to weigh heavily after Gylfi Sigurdsson had broken the resistance. It was a worrying echo of their last season in the top flight, which ended in relegation back in 2014.
On the good days, when Norwich can perform to a competitive level, they still fail to pick up positive results. When they fall far below their best the outcome is inevitable. Current form and the relative quality gap between Norwich and Manchester City suggests only one result is possible at Carrow Road Saturday lunchtime, but in this most unpredictable of Premier League seasons those in the home ranks will cling to the belief there is another dramatic twist in the plot.
Paddy is the chief Norwich City correspondent for media group Archant. He has covered the Canaries for more than 10 years. Twitter: @paddyjdavitt.