City failed to give the Canary Nation the Christmas present it had hoped for when the unbeaten Premier League run of ten games ended with a narrow 2-1 defeat at West Brom.
A header from Romelu Lukaku with just nine minutes remaining forced the visitors to taste league defeat for the first time since their 4-1 reverse at Stamford Bridge back on 6th October.
With Grant Holt not travelling to the West Midlands – courtesy of the hamstring strain picked up late in last week’s win over Wigan – Christ Hughton handed the lone striker role to Steve Morison. The rest of the line-up remained unchanged from last week, and was largely the same one that has been in situ for the unbeaten league run.
The host’s teamsheet showed a real attacking intent, with City’s nemesis from seasons past, Shane Long, having to be content with a place on the bench; West Brom manager Steve Clarke instead deciding to go with the pace and power of Lukaku.
With West Brom fielding such an attacking front six, it was clear from the word ‘go’ that the visitors would have to be on their mettle to contain the Baggies goal threat, but City – captained for the day by Wes Hoolahan – went into the game in understandably confident mood
The visitors were quick to find their passing rhythm and displayed a swagger early on borne of their recent rich vein of form. With Hoolahan seeing a lot of the ball, the visitors edged the opening exchanges without really troubling BenFoster in the home goal.
Almost 20 minutes into the game, a prolonged spell of City ‘pass and move’ football – which prompted a few ‘olés’ from the vociferous Yellow Army – resulted in a shooting opportunity for Bradley Johnson, but his effort flew well over the bar.
Albion were next to go close when Lukaku wriggled clear for the first time in the match, but his right-footed shot was comfortably saved by Mark Bunn.
Midway through the half City drew first blood when, for the third consecutive away game, Robert Snodgrass rattled in a left-footed free-kick from the edge of the box; his excellent curling drive saw Foster getting both hands to the ball, but only able to push it into the roof of his own net.
On the balance of play it was no more than Norwich deserved and only served to further ramp up the volume of the travelling Canary support.
In fairness to the home side, they responded well to the setback and forced City into the resolute defending of which they have been so adept of late.
With just two minutes of the first half remaining the Baggies pulled level. From Brunt’s hanging corner a goalmouth scramble resulted in Bunn pushing the ball on to the bar, only for it to be bundled in from close range by Zoltan Gera.
The home side ended the half strongly and Peter Odemwingie whistled a shot just wide of Bunn’s left hand post, but not before referee Martin Atkinson had turned down a decent City penalty appeal with Olsson appearing to handle a Snodgrass shot.
The second period saw long periods of Albion pressure but, in a similar fashion to the first, City were smartly out of the blocks. On 48 minutes, Johnson headed tamely at Foster when well-placed and six minutes later Morison was presented with another opportunity when set clear by Alex Tettey. Unfortunately for City, ex-Ipswich defender, Gareth McAuley managed to get a last gasp block on his shot.
On 55 minutes Michael Turner was presented with a good opportunity to give City the lead again, but his free header -from another excellent Snodgrass free-kick – drifted harmlessly wide.
Having survived these early scares it was the home side that went on to dominate the half – certainly in terms of possession. For their part, City defended well, with Bunn rarely being called upon, other than to deal a barrage of dangerous crosses.
Despite the game being played predominantly in the City half, the game looked to be heading for a draw but, on 81 minutes, the Baggies conjured up a winning goal. There appeared little danger at first, as Popov swung in a hopeful, diagonal cross from the West Brom left, but the dangerous Lukaku made the most of his physical advantage over Javier Garrido and thumped an unstoppable header past Bunn.
On this occasion, Hughton was quick to act and Simeon Jackson was added to the Norwich attack, at the expense of Alex Tettey. The Canadian went close to making an impact, but was unable to get his header, from Morison’s cross, on target.
A flurry of late City pressure served to unnerve a twitchy home crowd, and hearts were in mouths as Johnson’s 94th minute header flashed inches wide of Foster’s goal – but the Baggies survived to record their first win in five games.
A disappointing end to the unbeaten run for Hughton’s men, but it had to end at some stage. With two home games, against Chelsea and Manchester City, coming up in quick succession the old adage, ‘it’s how you respond to a defeat that counts’, has never been more appropriate.
Easier said than done of course – especially given the opposition – but home wins against Arsenal and Manchester United in the midst of the run show that with the class of 2012/13 anything is possible.