Hughton accepts his head is on block
Norwich City 0 Manchester Utd 1
The future of Norwich manager Chris Hughton has come under fresh scrutiny after his side fell to within three points of the relegation places after a defeat during which his decision to substitute Gary Hooper was booed by large sections of the home crowd.
"I understand," he shrugged. "I've no problem with that." But such calm could not mask the fact that Norwich have suffered a dismal Christmas campaign with two straight home losses, testing his amicable relationship with chief executive David McNally to the limit.
In a winter of brutal managerial sackings, Hughton could be the next to fall as Norwich's fluctuating season took another wrong turn, his players spurning a catalogue of chances to punish a United side shorn of star strikers Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. The visit to Crystal Palace on New Year's Day has become a critical examination of his credentials, even if Hughton remains confident of attracting reinforcements in next month's transfer window.
The profligacy of his team, who had six corners to United's zero in the first half, heightens his vulnerability.
"That's the frustration of our season," he admitted. "We've had highs and lows, some good performances and some big defeats. It is about trying to get back to a level of consistency."
The late replacement of supporters' favourite Hooper, who had scored four times in his previous four games, with under-performing Ricky van Wolfswinkel, proved especially unpopular.
David Moyes, meanwhile, was either a blind optimist or quite the clairvoyant as he spelt out the task for his latest match-winner in precise terms by challenging Danny Welbeck to score 20 goals this season. That might be a stretch, given the imminent return of Rooney and Van Persie from injury, but the England striker's opportunist goal could yet disrupt the pecking order.
"We have said to Danny that we are trying to keep his finishing up," Moyes explained. "He has responded, saying, 'this is good -- I'm beginning to score some goals and being recognised for it as well'. With the second half of the season to go, he should be looking at 20 goals. We need him to do that, because without Wayne and Robin you need people to step up to the mark."
Rooney is expected to be available for next week's game against Spurs, while Moyes also revealed that Van Persie was close to a return.
"We have needed the squad. We have a big squad here and a good squad," Moyes said. "If you are going to win games away from home then you are going to need them to do their job, and we are going to need them in the coming games as well."
Moyes feels his team have the confidence required to lift themselves and make up their lost ground over the remainder of the campaign.
"We have to keep moving on and believing that we are going to catch the teams above us, we have to believe that we are going to go out and win the games," the Scot added.
"We look more likely to score goals and it looks as if we are creating more. The players are getting the bit between their teeth again and I think they are generally doing much better."
Welbeck, now up to 10 for club and country, proved the catalyst for victory when he replaced a half-paced Ryan Giggs and immediately pounced on a deflection to round Norwich 'keeper John Ruddy for a nonchalant finish.
Out of the misery of the two home defeats that opened their marathon month, United have won six in a row, although on the evidence of this error-riddled performance Moyes was wise not to sound too triumphalist.
"We have nothing to shout about here at the moment," he said. "We are just trying to move along." (© Daily Telegraph, London)