Two strikes from the Premiership’s current master marksman Robin van Persie settled an enthralling lunch-time encounter at Carrow Road this afternoon as the Canaries slipped to a 2-1 defeat against the visiting Gunners.
It is all to Norwich’s credit that they never allowed Arsenal to slip into top gear and, indeed, through Steve Morison’s first-half opener even stole into an early lead.
Thereafter, however, it was van Persie who stole the headlines with two, smart finishes to make it ten goals in five Premiership games from the Dutch master. Try as Norwich might – and try they did – they could never replicate such firepower, even if they never let the big red machine roll them over as they did Chelsea the other week.
That, in itself, was an achievement.
“They are a right good side – a right good side,” admitted City boss Paul Lambert afterwards, with a trip to another one – Manchester City – looming large on the horizon. In between is next weekend’s home clash with QPR. A big game, even by ‘every-game-is-a-big-game’ standards.
“But the pleasing thing was that we were always in the game – and you’re never going to keep them out for 90 minutes,” added Lambert.
The deciding goal came via a rare rush of the blood to the head by City man of the match Russell Martin; caught in possession way out of position.
“The winning goal hurt a little bit,” said the City chief. “Everyone saw it – but Russell’s general play was excellent. But when you’re playing against players at that level, you’ve got to make as little mistakes as you can.”
Particularly when van Persie is lurking. “He’s scoring for fun at the minute,” said Lambert. “But his general play and his touch around the box is top, top class.”
A sign of what might be to come came as early as the warm-up, as the Gunners pinged the ball between each other with frightening elan; skipper van Persie acting as ring-master.
Being no-one’s fool, Lambert’s team selection recognised that threat as Andrew Crofts returned to add another pair of legs to the City midfield at the expense of Grant Holt. Elliott Bennett also found himself out of favour as David Fox returned with a clear brief to keep the ball.
Crofts and Johnson were there to try and win it; Wes Hoolahan and Fox to keep it. That would be the theory, at least. The flip side was that it left Morison to plough a lonely furrow.
What can happen with one mistake was also evident from the start.
Marc Tierney’s misplaced pass in the opening minute would enable Aaron Ramsey to skip in behind him; his angled cross found van Persie for once scuffing a shot well wide. But there was a lesson to be had.
The Dutchman would drill a better effort little more than a yard wide five minutes later as the visitors started at a canter.
The curiosity tactically was Anthony Pilkington’s role as the newly-crowned Anglian Homes Player of the Month found himself in a far more central hole; sitting off lone striker Morison in something of a 4-3-2-1 operation.
Theo Walcott would have opened the scoring in the 11th minute but for the most magnificent goal-line clearance from Martin. Walcott’s left-foot curler was always bound for inside John Ruddy’s right upright before the City defender covered back and brilliantly directed his clearance away from danger. Carrow Road rose in appreciation.
They were out of the seats again in the 16th minute – and with every good reason as Morison put the Canaries ahead.
Tierney’s curling ball into the inside-left channel should have been meat and drink for Per Mertesacker. But with the City striker breathing down his neck, the gangly German international lost ball, head and reputation as Morison muscled his way towards the penalty spot and fired his shot beyond a startled Wojciech Szczesny.
Get in their faces, knock them out of their stride, rough them up – it was a classic, old-fashioned centre-forward’s goal against a ball-playing centre-half who presumed he had all afternoon to clear.
City still needed Martin’s cool head at the back to keep their sudden advantage intact as first he headed a 23rd minute van Persie header off the line; a minute later, he would then smash Gervinho’s drive into Row Z and out of the goal-mouth after Ruddy had half-saved.
Alas he could do little to prevent the Gunners’ 26th minute leveller.
Walcott left Tierney for dead before drilling a low cross through the six-yard box for van Persie – inevitably – to tap home for his ninth Premiership goal in his last five games.
On other days, that strike would have signalled the start of a cricket score – if Arsenal were allowed to hit their stride. But, in fairness, to the home side with Crofts and Johnson busy in midfield, Morison pulling Mertesacker this way and that and Martin imperious in defence, Norwich held their own through to the break.
The introduction of Bennett for Fox at half-time gave Arsene Wenger more to ponder as City re-discovered some natural width. It was, however, the Gunners who continued to offer the bigger threat – City the greater defensive resolve as Ruddy produced a superb, 56th minute save at the feet of Gervinho.
Alas, for Martin heart-break lay ahead. Caught horribly in possession as strode out of defence with the ball at his feet, Arsenal took full advantage on a rapier-like counter that ended with van Persie clipping his second of the game over a helpless Ruddy. Right through the door that Martin had left banging wide open.
Pilkington had the best chance to level as Bennett whipped in a low cross to the near post; alas, the touch was too light and the ball barely deviated in its path across the face of the Gunners goal.
Holt’s arrival – as ever – ruffled feathers. The City skipper had a big shout for a penalty denied when he stepped in front of the second-best Mertesacker five minutes from the end – only to be booked for diving for his troubles. Replays would demonstrate it was at least half of one, six of the other.
But that might have to be filed under ‘straw’ and ‘cling to….