A 79th minute leveller from Michael Turner ensured that it was Chris Hughton of managers past and present bearing the bigger smile this afternoon as the Canaries dug out a well-deserved 1-1 draw out of Paul Lambert’s Villa.
Christian Benteke’s all-too easy first-half opener put the Scot in charge against his old employers only for Joe Bennett’s 50th minute exit for a second, bookable offence to turn the tables on Lambert.
Villa were barely able to get out of their own half thereafter as Norwich swarmed forward in search of first a leveller and then a potential winner.
The first they got as Turner nodded a deft, stooping header in off the base of an upright; the second just eluded them as Grant Holt and substitutes Robert Snodgrass and Ryan Bennett went close.
In the end, however, it ended honours even; Norwich continuing to ease away from the bottom three; Villa still unable to fire their season into life under their new boss. The managerial magic he brought to Norfolk over the course of those three, magnificent seasons has yet to replicate itself in the Midlands.
And there will be little doubt as to which club will be the more satisfied; which set of supporters will think that they have enjoyed the last laugh.
Of the early chances, Wes Hoolahan squandered the best as he squeezed into the inside right channel only for his awkward, final shot to be comfortably guided wide by a relieved Bradley Guzan.
Otherwise it was all relatively low-key for a game that had more dollops than usual when it came to the pre-match hype. Much poison being in the air following the recent revelations regarding Lambert’s decision to sue the Canaries for unfair dismissal; Norwich responding with a counter claim for breach of contract. Or vice versa.
The cagey opening continued for the first quarter of the contest – until Lambert’s big-money summer strike signing came good just when he needed it.
With Darren Bent again confined to the bench, the ex-Canary chief would have prayed long and hard that the £7 million youngster Benteke would step up and deliver in front of the home faithful; 27 minutes in, he did – picking his spot in the bottom right-hand corner as a horribly-exposed John Ruddy dived away in the opposite direction.
The time and the space handed to the Villa striker was something to be picked apart at length later; in short, it was not pretty with neither Sebastien Bassong or Turner anywhere to be seen. The 21-year-old had all the space deep in the City box that both Fulham and Liverpool had enjoyed and, once again, took full advantage of Norwich’s defensive generosity.
With every good reason, Hughton had rewarded the same starting XI that delivered such a famous home win over Arsenal last weekend with a further chance to repeat their feats at Villa Park – and they weren’t in any undue trouble until Benteke’s strike.
Indeed, for the next 15 minutes they continued to look the better side and but for a huge interception from Chris Herd off an Elliott Bennett cross, Holt could have slid home a leveller and bagged his fourth goal in as many games.
The battle of the Bennetts had already found Elliott persuading Joe to foul him deep in the Villa before the break; six minutes after it and the Villa full-back was hauling him back on the touchline and picking his second yellow of the afternoon as a result. If Lambert was to dig all three points out of this contest, he would have to do it with ten men for the final 40 minutes.
Hoolahan and Anthony Pilkington almost dug a leveller out on 64 minutes only for Guzan to again save by his hear post; Holt would see Guzan save on a clear one-on-one; substitute Snodgrass would be blocked by Ron Vlaar on the near post.
Something had to give as the visitors piled forward. In the 78th minute it did as Hoolahan picked up a swift-taken corner and delivered a teasing cross to the edge of the six-yard box where a stretching Turner continued his recent renaissance by guiding a header in off the base of the far upright.
It was all Norwich had deserved as they dominated post Bennett’s exit. The joy was unconfined among players, supporters and management alike.
A winner just eluded the visitors; two minutes into added-on time and substitute Ryan Bennett blazed over from a Steve Morison far post cross. But a point was one gained for Hughton; it was two more dropped for Lambert.