The odd goal in seven proved enough to deny Norwich City at least a share of the festive spoils in a thrilling, Carrow Road contest this afternoon.
In the end, reigning Premier League champions Manchester City – reduced to ten men for the whole of the second period following Samir Nasri’s first-half dismissal – held on to claim a massive 4-3 win in their own quest to retain that crown.
It was rough justice on Chris Hughton’s Canaries, who demonstrated the depth of their own resolve by clawing their way back into a spell-binding game after Edin Dzeko had bagged two goals in the opening four minutes.
Entertainment-wise, that set the tone as Anthony Pilkington’s deflected free-kick on 14 minutes rocked the visitors back on their heels. Order might have been restored when Sergio Aguero capped a brilliant individual display with City’s fourth just after the interval, only for two goals from Canary skipper Russell Martin to keep the game at boiling point after Mark Bunn’s own goal kept the visitors in front.
In the end, despite the best promptings of second-half substitute Jonny Howson and the graft of Spurs youngster Harry Kane, Manchester City had the nous of champions to see the game out and take all three points out of their trip to Norfolk.
But they were run so, so close by an ever-game Norwich side, who are now left with nothing to show for their huge Christmas efforts after those back-to-back defeats from first West Bromwich Albion, then Chelsea and now Manchester City.
Hughton had made one, big change ahead of kick-off as skipper Grant Holt’s hamstrings were rested once more and Steve Morison returned to lead the line, but that mattered little as the visitors – or rather Dzeko – threatened to rip the contest out of Norwich’s hands virtually from the kick-off.
Two goals in the space of the opening four minutes found the Canaries reaping the whirlwind in the shape of the champions’ 1-0 away defeat at Sunderland on Boxing Day and their urgent need to get back on the tails of neighbours United at the top of the table.
And so much for Roberto Mancini’s pre-match talk of going striker-less, Barcelona-style. Dzeko and Aguero were handed the gig up front and proceeded to deliver big-time in front of a shell-shocked home crowd who thought such events were now a distant memory.
Aguero was central to both; as was a formidable challenge from Vincent Kompany in the midst of the second as he went foot up through Bradley Johnson in the centre circle en route to releasing Aguero for the second time in as many minutes.
The first goal involved a first-time touch from David Silva before a free Dzeko bagged No7 of the season; No8 was similarly simple as Aguero worked himself back into the space behind Javier Garrido and teed his strike partner up for an easy tuck home beyond a helpless Bunn.
If the visitors thought that was that, Pilkington nipped that in the bud after 14 minutes when he beat England’s Joe Hart via a deflected free-kick. Gael Clichy was the defender providing the helping hand – or rather wayward ankle as the ball pinged off the City full-back and left Hart wholly stranded as he moved left and the ball went right.
Thereafter what was proving a breathless contest closed up a mite as Alexander Tettey and Johnson dug in ahead of the City back four; a Kompany header and an instant strike from YaYa Toure four minutes before the break were as close as the title holders came to re-establishing their two-goal advantage.
That task was made that much more difficult just before the interval as Nasri departed early for the faintest of head butts as he went forehead-to-forehead with Sebastien Bassong following a full-bloodied tackle from the Canary defender.
It was a flick of the head and little more, but enough for the assistant referee on the far side to mark Mike Jones’ card. The red one, as it happened.
Morison’s unhappy season continued with a 44th minute exit of his own through, reportedly, a thigh injury enabling the on-loan Kane to make a surprise return. His challenge – alongside that of Norwich – was to find a way round Kompany. He was the rock upon which the Canaries’ best attacking ambitions were foundering at the interval.
Four minutes after the break and the visitors made light of that one-man disadvantage as Toure dropped the perfect ball behind Bassong. Forced to twist and turn back on himself to close on Aguero, the initial ball was just too good.
The clipped finish over Bunn from Aguero wasn’t the worst either as the reigning Premier League champions demonstrated just why they managed to eclipse United in those final seconds of last season.
Character and sheer quality were – for now – telling. That and what £35 million gets you striker-wise.
But then Norwich weren’t short of character either as skipper Martin proved in the 63rd minute with a smart header into the far corner off a big, back post Bassong assist. The initial chance had come off a corner won by substitute Howson, who forced Hart into a sharp save in front of his left-upright.
The one-goal difference last less than four minutes, however, as Dzeko ‘claimed’ his hat-trick. Kind of. In reality it was an own goal off the luckless Bunn as the striker’s half-volley pinged off keeper, onto his near-post and back in again off Bunn’s shoulder. Messy, in short.
But neither Dzeko or Mancini cared as the pressure was eased again. Briefly.
They both reckoned without Martin’s reactions as he bagged his second of the afternoon on 75 minutes off another corner routine as Hart lost himself in the traffic and in the ping-pong that followed, there was the City full-back grabbing Norwich’s third with a sharp, in-off off the England No1.
Bunn would make amends with a fine, one-hander to deny Aguero; Michael Turner would almost squeeze one in round the ankles of substitute Joleon Lescott.
Almost, however, was as close as Norwich got – seven minutes of added-on time notwithstanding.
So close, but just not quite so close enough.