Chat with a Canary: Relegation Battle, Tactical Approach and Opponent's Views

WAW caught up with Russell Saunders, who writes for Norwich City's My Football Writer blog, to discuss Saturday's huge relegation six-pointer.

WAW: You had a good start to the season, briefly getting into the top half early on. After that start, did you expect more out of this season?
RS: A few of the Norfolk faithful got carried away maybe but we never managed two wins in a row then so never felt comfortable.  The majority of us knew that the season would probably be a bit of a struggle and were/still are more than happy to survive for an improved effort next season.

You've put in some good battling performances this season, such as in games against Man Utd and West Brom. Why do you think there haven't been more performances like those?
The $64,000 question! The only consistent thing about our season has been the inconsistency. A large part of the problem has been team and tactical chopping and changing, often from one game to the next. As a result,  there's been an infuriating lack of solidity at the back and of threat up top. The manager takes the buck for that but the majority of fans are still in the Neil camp - he's young and learning. Mistakes have been made but I'm convinced he's on an upward path (with us hopefully). 

How long have you been following Norwich and what have been some of your highs and lows during that time?
First game at Carrow Road was Stoke 1972, the club's first ever top flight season after decades in the wilderness. I was so excited, I got sick and my Dad had to take me home after the first half. We missed all the goals in a 2-0 win for the Canaries.

The highs were the first ever Premier League season when we finished a mind boggling 3rd, the subsequent defeat of Bayern Munich, Milk Cup win in 1985 against you know who and last season's playoff final defeat of Boro.

The lows were relegation to the 3rd tier (09/10), the 7-1 home loss to Colchester that followed and some Premier pummellings in recent years (mainly Luis Suarez or Sergio Aguero-inspired). The 6-2 at Newcastle this season wasn't pleasant either.  

Let's get to the big one - who's going to finish 17th? How confident are you in your answer?
Saturday's little encounter will go a long way to determine that but I'm nervously confident that this season is our turn to survive. Sunderland have had more than their fair share of narrow escapes lately - how confident are you?!

If the worst came to pass for Norwich and you were relegated, would you keep Alex Neil and would you expect to come back up next season?
It would be absolute insanity to sack him in that situation. Even if we went down, Neil has much credit in the bank from his efforts so far. We would have a strong chance of bouncing back but it's dangerous to confidently expect anything from such a tough division as we found out last season. 

Are there any past games against Sunderland that stand out in your memory? Any thoughts about the club or the region?
Wembley 85 of course - awful game but right result.  1992 FA Cup semi loss at Hillsborough. Thoroughly enjoyed our 3-1 win earlier this season but a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Sunderland? Massive club with fiercely passionate but fiendishly frustrated fans! Dodgy recent run of managers but Big Sam was a sound appointment. I lived in the North East for 3 years a long time ago - loved my time up there.

What, if anything, concerns you most about what Sunderland can do on Saturday?
Win of course! You seem to be well organised now, difficult to beat and carry the Defoe factor. If your lads start positively and put our shaky back four under pressure, it could be a long afternoon for the Carrow Road faithful. 

Which Norwich players should we be most worried about?
If Wes Hoolahan starts and is 'on it', he is a wizard. Jonny Howson is like a Rolls Royce, while Nathan Redmond (on his day) is a handful. Robbie Brady has been very good for us too. 

How do you expect Neil to approach the game tactically, and what do you expect the line up to be?
Dangerous to second guess him. He's come up with some unpredictable tactics and line ups this season. Almost certainly, we'll stick with one up top (Mbokani most likely) and hopefully be out of the blocks quickly. We've had some ponderous starts at home and paid for it. Line up will be very similar to that which overcame Newcastle recently with the exception of centre-back Timm Klose who has knackered his knee - big loss for us.

Referees have come in for a lot of criticism lately over bad decisions. How do you think the quality of refereeing can be approved? 
We've been on the wrong end this season but I guess all fans can claim that. The solution? Has to be more video technology to assist with big calls. I like the idea of each side having 2-3 challenges per game as happens in tennis and cricket.

Would you support "safe standing" terraces, as seen in Germany, being introduced to grounds in England?
Personally, I'm not a great advocate for it but there is a movement among a section of fans to push for safe standing at Carrow Road. Maybe worth trialing but until the law changes, it ain't going to happen. 

Finally, will you be there on Saturday and can we have a score prediction please?
Absolutely. 2-1 to Norwich. May the best team win..

You can follow Russell on Twitter at @saund65 and the Norwich City My Football Writer blog at @NorwichCityMFW.
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Great Goals and Mindless Mistakes - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly from Manchester United 3-1 Sunderland

Great Goals and Mindless Mistakes - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly from Manchester United 3-1 Sunderland

Sunderland fell to a 3-1 defeat against Manchester United on David Moyes’ return to Old Trafford this Boxing Day. An encouraging first half went to waste as Sunderland crumbled to goals from Daley Blind, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and a wonder goal by Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Here’s some things that went well, some things that went poorly, and some things we’re just plain sick of seeing.

The Good

Given the nature of our second half demise, it’s easy to forget Sunderland were the better side in the first 45. 

Unlucky to be going in behind at the break, Moyes’ side were creating the chances, just without taking any of them.

The opener aside, Jordan Pickford was there to stop everything at the other end when United did threaten.

Perhaps the best moment of the game came in the dying moments.

Three goals down and with the game firmly out of reach, Fabio Borini took the ball down on his chest before looping it over De Gea and into the top corner.

Possibly one of our goals of the season, and one which will inevitably be overshadowed by the result and, rightly so, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s stunning effort.

The Bad

As with Swansea three weeks ago, Sunderland slumbered out for the second half. Ambling along in a fashion that begged United to punish. 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic duly obliged.

Dider Ndong’s sloppy pass was cut out by Paul Pogba, who fed the Swede to finish easily – all with Ndong still lying down.

For a player who continues to divide opinion between those who believe in statistics and those who don’t, Ndong did himself no favours this afternoon.

Not to be outdone by his midfield partner, Jason Denayer also cheaply lost the ball, leading to Mkhitaryan’s wonder goal.

For years now, Sunderland have thrown away countless games with mindless mistakes, and our relegation worries aren’t going anywhere as long as we continue to do so.

The Ugly

On the topic of foolish mistakes, the partnership of Lamine Kone and Papy Djilobodji needs addressing.

Neither look assured, confident central defenders, and haven’t for much of this season.

Djilobodji appeared to turn a corner in recent weeks, yet the panicky mistakes were creeping back into his game today. 

As for Kone, he was lucky not to be punished for a foul similar on Juan Mata not dissimilar to Fabricio Coloccini’s against Steven Fletcher circa 2015.

Not content with that, Kone went looking for an extra week off, on top of his African Cup of Nations commitments, with a last-man foul on Mkhitaryan in the dying stages. 

Martin Atkinson only booked the Ivorian, but Sunderland’s defence failed to stand up when questioned once again today. 

Both are likely to be called up to their national sides for the AFCON next month, but things need to be better in the meantime.

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