A stunning free-kick from Anthony Pilkington could not quite steal Darren Bent’s thunder at Villa Park this weekend as an ever-spirited City lost 3-2 to Aston Villa.
Pilkington’s opener – high and handsome into the top corner – merely fired the home side into life with Gabby Agbonlahor proving a total menace down the Villa left.
Twice he would pick out Bent’s movement for the simplest of close-range finishes; in between he would make the very most of a ghastly Leon Barnett back-pass coupled to a hesitant challenge from City keeper John Ruddy.
Afterwards Canary chief Paul Lambert would lament the poor defending that cost Norwich dear.
The alternative was to nod your head in admiration at Bent’s speed of thought and movement in and around the City six-yard box and, likewise, to suggest that Agbonlahor’s pace, athleticism and delivery were too much out of the top drawer for the Norfolk side.
Villa are a decent side and Bent goes for big money whenever he moves – because he scores goals.
Lambert’s frustration was clear, however. Norwich made it all-too easy for the Bents and the Agbonlahors; they should have been made to work harder for the points; City were the architects of their own demise.
“The second goal was a blow – it was really sloppy from us,” the Canary boss admitted afterwards, as the balance of the game shifted in favour of the home side through Barnett’s rare lapse in concentration.
The third goal – as Bent once more escaped his markers and Agbonlahor once more was granted the opportunity to deliver a nightmare ball to defend – didn’t overly impress the manager, either.
“The third goal might have been even worse,” he told BBC Radio Norfolk. “But credit to the lads, they kept on going right to the end which was really pleasing and if we can keep that, we might be OK.”
As ever, the trick was to learn from the experience – and not sell your keeper short with a back pass.
And not do it three minutes into the new half; all of a sudden the best-laid plans of the interval go flying out of the window.
“It was poor – it was our mistake,” said Lambert. “You can’t defend like that and expect to come away with anything and, hopefully, Leon [Barnett] will learn from that – kick it into Row Z rather than try to pass it back.”
Of particular note was the fact that Lambert opted to make a big change for this weekend’s trip to Villa Park, pairing club skipper Grant Holt with Steve Morison up top – at the expense of David Fox.
It left Bradley Johnson and Wes Hoolahan to run the show in centre midfield.
The pairing of Holt and Morison worked in the sense that it was the former’s superb, far post cross that handed the latter his third goal of the season with a tight header 13 minutes from the end.
The pairing of Johnson and Hoolahan was less successful – the former disappearing just after the half-hour mark to be replaced by Andrew Crofts.
The other big positive was Pilkington’s fourth strike of the season – the best of the bunch thus far as the Canary winger whipped an absolute peach into the top corner, away and beyond Shay Given. It had his manager purring with delight afterwards.
“It was an absolute brilliant execution against a top class goalkeeper,” said Lambert. “It was a great goal, but at the end of the day it doesn’t get you anything.”
The Canaries now have another fortnight off in which they can sit back and assess the progress that they have made.
The result actually saw Villa leap-frog over Norwich in the Premiership table – the Canaries finding themselves back in ninth ahead of today’s three games. It is a position that many a City supporter would have taken 11 games in.
It is still November; there remains a long, long way to go. But the injection of a helping hand or two in the January transfer window and the return to fitness of those that might stiffen the competition for places at the back all should work in Norwich’s favour.
Above all else, however, they have to keep that spirit going; the never-say-never attitude that took them close to pulling another big away point out of Villa this weekend.
“The lads have done really, really well,” said Lambert. “It’s all new to us, but they’re holding their own and as I said before, if we can keep that spirit that they’ve got, then hopefully we’ll be OK.”
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