Barely a month ago, Norwich City v Southampton had the look of a low-pressure, end-of-season encounter between two sides safe from the stresses of a Premier League relegation battle and happy to comfortably make their way to May and survival.
But as spring threatens to break out, this fixture has suddenly taken on huge significance, with both teams desperate for wins to propel them away from a dogfight.
It’s fair to say that winter was harsh for Norwich. The Canaries endured a run of five league defeats in six from mid-December to mid-January and this was compounded by an FA Cup fourth-round home defeat to non-league Luton Town.
From sitting seventh with 25 points on December 15th after a 2-1 home win against Wigan Athletic, Chris Hughton’s side found themselves 13th with just a point more on January 19th after a 5-0 humbling away to Liverpool.
A four-game unbeaten run did turn the tide, culminating in a last-gasp 2-1 win at home to Everton – their first victory in ten league outings – but that came to an abrupt end in last Saturday’s limp 4-0 defeat to a Manchester United side inspired by the goalscoring exploits of Shinji Kagawa.
Norwich may sit eight points clear of the relegation zone, but with ten games to play, manager Hughton will be acutely aware how easy it can be to get dragged into the relegation mix, as will his counterpart this weekend, Mauricio Pochettino, despite his strong belief that it is “obvious” that Southampton will stay in the Premier League.
The highs of beating Manchester City 3-1 on February 9th and moving six points clear of the drop zone has been followed by crushing defeats to Newcastle United and against bottom club Queens Park Rangers last weekend.
Saints were insipid in defeat to the Hoops and although Gaston Ramirez showed a flash of brilliance to chip Julio Cesar and underline why he came with a £12 million price tag, goals from Loic Remy and Jay Bothroyd were enough to leave the south-coast club nervously looking over their shoulder at Wigan, Aston Villa and Reading beneath them.
It’s now one win in six for Saints under their Argentine manager and they are priced at 39/20 to win at Carrow Road this Saturday, while the draw can be backed at odds of 11/5 and Norwich are favourites in bwin’s 3way market at 7/5.
Much of this weekend’s clash could come down to the battle between two of the most compared strikers in the Premier League – Grant Holt and Rickie Lambert.
The former Rochdale teammates have been talismanic for their sides over the last three seasons, firing their sides through the divisions – Holt’s stats read 65 goals in 143 league games, while Lambert has 90 from 156.
Both hitmen are inspirations for any lower-league players with Premier League aspirations, regardless of age, though it is Lambert who has proven himself to be the better player this season.
Superficially, it is clear to see, with Lambert plundering a dozen league goals compared to Holt’s five.
It is the creative side of attacking that really sets the two apart, because while Holt is a more physical and mobile player, using his physicality to bully defences and win important free-kicks for his team, Lambert has a greater subtlety to his game.
Not only has the Saints’ number seven created double the amount of goals that Holt has so far this season, he has also created more than double the amount of chances (59-26) at an average of every 38 minutes, compared to the Norwich skipper’s 73 minutes.
Lambert’s ability to create and take chances has made him one of the most destructive lone strikers in the top flight and his record of seven goals from his last nine away matches is testament to this.
The Scouse striker is 5/1 to net first, though the 2/1 anytime price looks the most obvious – his last three away goals have been scored with Saints trailing. It’s a potential outcome worth £60 to any new bwin customers using their free £20 bet after registering.
Given the difficult run of games that both sides face in the rest of March, Norwich and Southampton will be desperate for three points at Carrow Road on Saturday.
A victory for the Canaries would see them more or less guarantee their safety, while conversely, a win for Southampton would ease their concerns and pull one or two of the teams above them back towards the dogfight.
And with that in mind, it could well be the neutral that loses out. As much as both teams will be gunning for victory, the fear of defeat could see a very tight and edgy game played out.
Southampton are unbeaten in their last six meetings with Norwich, but four of those clashes have ended in stalemate and at odds of 5/1, a 1-1 draw could be the standout play in the goal bet market, unless Lambert can continue his away-day heroics.