As part of our Premier League snap-shots series, Rachel Griffiths looks back on Norwich's 2-1 victory over struggling Sunderland at Carrow Road.
Last Updated: 02/12/12 7:38pm
If the first half of Sunday's Carrow Road clash was all about Norwich, then the second belonged to Sunderland.
But despite their spirited display after the break, the struggling Black Cats could not salvage the encounter after goals from Sebastien Bassong and Anthony Pilkington sealed a 2-1 win for the Canaries, with Craig Gardner snatching the consolation.
Martin O'Neill's side remain just a point clear of the Premier League relegation zone and will be feeling the pressure after another defeat.
Norwich manager Chris Hughton kept faith with the same starting XI that drew 1-1 at Southampton on Wednesday night, with goalkeeper Mark Bunn once again continuing between the sticks in place of the injured John Ruddy. The shot-stopper didn't have much to do in the first half against a subdued Sunderland side but the Black Cats came alive in the second and he was called upon to make some crucial saves.
James McClean was handed his first start in four games by Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill, replacing injured captain Lee Cattermole. The winger grew into the game but his impact was limited, with Adam Johnson looking more imposing on the opposite flank. Cattermole's organisational skills were missed in the opening half, with the visitors at times looking sloppy and shapeless.
A classic game of two halves saw Norwich flourish in a 4-2-3-1 formation for the opening 45 minutes, with midfield trio Robert Snodgrass, Anthony Pilkington and particularly Wes Hoolahan bossing proceedings against a Black Cats side who wound up playing chase for much of the half. After the break the pressure was on the Canaries defence to hold firm as Sunderland attempted a comeback and they lived up to the task, with opening goalscorer Sebastien Bassong and Ryan Bennett proving their worth at the back.
O'Neill persisted with his open 4-4-2 system despite lowly Sunderland's current predicament and his side were overrun for much of the opening half. Johnson traded to the left wing in place of McClean and the swap seemed to make a difference, with the winger setting up Craig Gardner's goal on the stroke of half-time. The Black Cats came alive after the break, with their goal the obvious catalyst, and looked far more confident, with Sessegnon unlucky not to score with support from Johnson and Danny Rose going forward.
Connor Wickham came off the bench for Sunderland at half-time after striker Steven Fletcher retired with injury, and the youngster will have impressed O'Neill, coming close when he put the ball in the back of the net only for it to be ruled offside. O'Neill also introduced Fraizier Campbell for McClean and David Vaughan for the unimpressive Sebastian Larsson late on but they could not help the Black Cats complete a comeback.
Hughton tried to inject some fresh energy into his Norwich attack with 13 minutes remaining as Elliott Bennett replaced Snodgrass and the midfielder brought width to the side as they held on for the win. The manager's only other change was the introduction of Jonny Howson, who stepped in for the influential Hoolahan in the dying minutes and did not have time to make an impact.
It was not the most taxing of afternoons for referee Phil Dowd, though both sides could argue he missed some key decisions. Two of those came in the build-up to the opening goal, when Norwich might have claimed a Cuellar handball, while there were also calls for offside. The two yellow cards he dished out, both to Sunderland players, appeared correct calls after Matthew Kilgallon clipped Grant Holt and Phil Bardsley fouled Hoolahan.
Hoolahan was once again a star performer for the Canaries, showing flair, skill and cleverness in midfield as he created most of the home side's chances. Pilkington also enjoyed an impressive afternoon, capped by the sublime finish for his goal, while Bunn continued to hold his own in place of Ruddy between the sticks.
Gardner was a key player in Sunderland's attempted comeback, with his goal particularly easy on the eye. The midfielder kept hunting possession in the second half and created plenty of chances but could not find the end result.
Norwich are now unbeaten in nine games in all competitions and Sunday's win will have given them a great confidence boost, particularly after withstanding Sunderland's second-half onslaught to claim the three points. A potentially tricky trip to Swansea awaits next time out but Hughton has plenty of reasons to be cheerful ahead of the journey to South Wales.
Sunderland remain in a sticky situation near the foot of the table, one point clear of safety, and Martin O'Neill is likely to be feeling the heat. However, as clichéd as it sounds, positives can be taken from an encouraging second half when the Black Cats bossed proceedings. More worrying for Sunderland were the opening 40 or so minutes, when they failed to get a grip on the game.