Second-half strikes from first Oliveira Anderson and then Danny Welbeck broke Norwich City hearts at Old Trafford this afternoon as the Canaries slipped to a 2-0 defeat to the Premier League champions.
If any defeat can ever be described as magnificent, then this might be one as the Norfolk side displayed all the pride and the passion that has swept them through first League One and then the Championship in keeping the Reds at bay for so long.
Indeed, they had big, big chances of their own to take the lead through Anthony Pilkington and then level through Pilkington again, substitute Andrew Crofts and striker Steve Morison. Among a whole host of others, as the Canaries refused to go anywhere quietly and made United work and work for their win.
Morison would break two-on-one, his belated cross to Wes Hoolahan would be cut out by the last defender: Pilkington’s break into the box was the one – before the Canary winger then saw a combination of a last-ditch deflection and the inside of an upright deny Norwich a deserved goal.
An inch either way and City’s efforts would have earned their superb travelling support the goal they so yearned for.
“The one thing about coming to a place like this is that when you get a chance, you’ve got to score because these are a right top side – not just in Britain but in the whole of Europe,” Lambert old the BBC afterwards, the Canary chief refusing to point any fingers at any one individual in particular Pilkington.
“That would be harsh on him – he did brilliant by reading it in the first place,” said the City boss. By the same token, give Manchester United one sniff of a chance – go soft at a corner, for example – and that’s when that final ounce of quality counts.
“And you can’t keep Manchester United out for 90 minutes, but they way that we played was excellent. And a word for the crowd too – they were brilliant.”
At the other end, Norwich continued where they left off defensively; Russell Martin marshalling that back line to great effect with Marc Tierney, in particular, rising superbly to the occasion.
“I thought the back four were colossal,” said Lambert, who had earlier announced an unchanged City side for the second successive game – a nigh-on first in his managerial career at Carrow Road and due reward for a starting XI that had delivered back-to-back Premier League victories at first Bolton and then at home to Sunderland last Monday night.
Today’s trip to Old Trafford was always going to be a huge ask of the Norfolk side, but as in the 3-1 away defeat to Chelsea, Lambert’s charges showed few qualms on the grandest of stages and fought fire with fire for the opening hour as the gave Rooney and Co much to ponder.
The fact that there were 76,000 there to witness it all barely ruffled a Norwich feather; once again they took it all in their stride.
In the end, however, the Champions ability to dig deep and discover that one, moment of quality that can reward even an off-par display with all three points rode to their rescue as England’s Wayne Rooney teed Anderson up for their crucial, 68th minute opener as City failed to clear a corner convincingly.
Three minutes from the end and it was Ji-Sung Park’s turn to be provider as he set up Welbeck for the game’s killer goal. By then, Lambert was fielding three out-and-out strikers as he threw both Simeon Jackson and Chrissy Martin into the fray and sought that one finish that could have made the world of difference.
In the end, Norwich had both pride and performance on their side; just not a point to their name. Those will come if the performance level stays the same over the course of the forthcoming international break.
Afterwards and Sir Alex Ferguson admitted that the visitors had created some big chances; that hitting Morison early and breaking at pace around him caused the champions problems.
“The funny thing about their game in playing these long balls to the big lad, they created chances through that,” said the United manager.
“They turned every counter-attack into something positive for them, but once we quickened the game up in the second-half we were much better.
“But then when it went to 1-0, it opened the game up and they still had chances – and it was a really good game for the last 20 minutes.”