We've seen some significant change at Norwich City since Chris Hughton's first competitive game in charge for us. Our visit to the Cottage on the opening weekend of the season was also the first competitive fixture the club had gone into without the hugely successful Paul Lambert at the helm in three years, so naturally there were many eyes on the dugout and tactics with people keen to dissect the differences between them in terms of possible strategies, formations, set-piece plays and so on.
As is always the case on opening weekend, virtually every football fan up and down the Country is full of optimism. Norwich didn't have many reasons not to be, and if anything the negative reactions from the pundits at the time (second season syndrome, Lambert's gone and taken the magic with him, etc) only made most of us even more determined to see the lads prove them wrong.
The vast majority were overwhelmingly pleased about who we'd brought into replace the departing Scot. Obviously the 1st choice for many would have been to keep him, but Hughton might not only be the next best thing, but his fresh ideas and impetus might even see the team perform even better (He's certainly performing better than his predecessor is in his new surroundings, anyway).
...Then we just HAD to start off at Craven Cottage, didn't we?
We just don't do Craven Cottage. Or opening days.
It had been ten years since we'd actually kicked off a league campaign with a win. But even 10 years ago we only won because we played Grimsby. Our record at the Cottage wasn't exactly chipper either, so it's no wonder we got a pasting when you combine both of those aspects really, is it?
The last day of the 2004/5 season will forever stick out in my mind when these two teams pair up, no matter how much I try and mentally block it, and last season we didn't get much there either, though not without some admirable effort from Aaron Wilbraham who at least managed to collect a personal accolade out of it and net 100 league goals in his career.
Since the opening day mauling at their gaff, Hughton brought in Sebastien Bassong, changed things round and ever since we've looked much, much better. Even now in another spell of bad form, we're still much improved from that shower of brown stuff we saw in West-London. The ten game unbeaten spell a few months back will live long in the memory, and once we get a couple more wins under our belt and we start to pull away from the relegation battle altogether, the thrashings against the likes of Liverpool will soon be forgotten.
Last time we met-
For all our troubles at the Cottage, last time out at Carrow Road Norwich actually performed well and even rescued a point in stoppage time thanks to the one and only Simeon Jackson. In the Championship promotion season Norwich had a habit of springing a late surprise or two, and this December clash showed we hadn't totally bucked that trend just yet.
Fulham took the lead through Orlando Sa, but generally the home side well in control of the play throughout, and Lambert's neat passing and attacking approach was making life difficult for Martin Gol's boys who have traditionally struggled on their travels to maintain the same kind of high tempo they often display at their Thames surroundings.
The result saw the Canaries finish 2011 in the top half of the Premier League, a fitting finale to what had been the finest calender year in the club's history for a long, long time. Obviously in football terms it's only the halfway stage and doesn't always give a good indication on how you'll actually finish, but it was definitely a reflection that we could cut it at this level again in a convincing manner.
What's in store this time around?-
Ideally, we really need to pick up three points. As painfully obvious and as generic as that sounds, it's very important that we pick up a win on home soil very quickly. The point and clean sheet away at Loftus Road was very welcome, and steadily we've been tightening up again and putting previous hammerings and embarrassments behind us. The next step is to build on the 7-point gap we still have on the bottom 3 teams, and the best way to do that is to collect maximum points by hook or by crook.
In the same way that the Arsenal victory kickstarted the unbeaten stretch and saw confidence skyrocket, the 1-1 with Tottenham has improved the mood and has shown that normal service has somewhat resumed. It's time to build on that with victory today over a Fulham side who seem to have fallen off of the pace a little bit this season without the likes of Clint Dempsey and Danny Murphy to inspire the team.
One would assume Luciano Becchio will get his first start. I'm pleased with the signing, despite feeling a little uncomfortable about the amount of players we keep signing from a club that generally disgust me. He may not have Premier League experience, but then has he really been given the opportunity?
It's certainly not for the lack of trying on his part, because he's been banging them in for fun at Leeds and maybe if that club as a whole got its act together, perhaps he'd have been given an opportunity to play his trade for them in the top flight. Alas, he saw the light and has followed Johnson, Howson and Snodgrass to play for a well-run club that actually has a clue and doesn't live in the past. Good luck to him and here's hoping it's the start of a good relationship.
All being well, I can see us taking the three points in this one. Mind you, I think I also said the same thing for my preview for the reverse fixture, so I wouldn't take it as gospel if I were you!
Just quickly before I finish- I'd just like to wish Jamie Carragher a very happy retirement. I don't care much for Liverpool but if more players showed his determination, dedication and enthusiasm for their club then football would be a far better place. Good luck to him, I wish there were more people like him both at my club and the game in general.