An unhappy opening to 2013 for the Canaries as their New Year’s trip to Green Street ended in a disappointing one-goal defeat. An unhealthy combination of curious refereeing and some unusually ponderous defending conspired to send City to their fourth consecutive defeat.
With Bradley Johnson missing the trip to East London due to suspension, Jonny Howson – as expected – was given a rare chance as Alex Tettey’s partner in the heart of the midfield. Also as expected, Harry Kane was handed the lone striker gig, the result of injuries to both Grant Holt and Steve Morison.
The one surprise omission from Chris Hughton’s starting XI was left-back, Javier Garrido – one assumes another victim of the injury curse – with the versatile Ryan Bennett being recalled as a result. An ‘old’ favourite, Korey Smith, also made a long-awaited return to the squad, being named as one of the subs.
For their part, the Hammers were without the suspended James Collins and Kevin Nolan, with Jack Collison and Ricardo Vaz Te being added to their starting line-up. Guy Demel was also handed a start by Sam Allardyce at the expense of Gary O’Neil.
The visitors got off to the worst possible start when referee Mark Clattenberg bizarrely awarded the home side a penalty from their first serious attack of the game. In typical Allardyce fashion, a loose ball was launched into the City penalty area, and when Ryan Bennett aerially challenged Winston Reid, he was harshly adjudged to have tugged his opponent’s shirt. Despite prolonged protestations from the City players – with the shirt tugging appearing to be reciprocal – Noble made no mistake from the spot, sending Mark Bunn the wrong way.
On 20 minutes Norwich came within a whisker of levelling when Robert Snodgrass saw his swerving, dipping 30-yard free-kick thump against the base of Jussi Jääskeläinen’s left-hand post.
From the ensuing corner City themselves had a penalty appeal – ironically a debatable handball by Reid – and went closer still when Pilkington’s shot squirmed inches wide of the post.
For City, the rest of the first half was one to forget. On 25 minutes, with Tettey laying injured on the turf following a hefty challenge with Carlton Cole, referee Clatenberg waved play on and the City defence watched as a jinking run from Noble ended with the ball being side-footed home by Joey O’Brien.
It appeared harsh on City, given that on such occasions play is usually stopped, but the defending certainly could have been better.
With Norwich clearly rattled by the second goal, West Ham finished the half strongly and, but for some woeful finishing by Cole and Vaz Te, coulkd have gone in at half-time more than 2 goals to the good.
The depth of feeling in the City camp was summed up by the normally mild-mannered Chris Hughton choosing to confront referee Clattenberg as he made his way down the tunnel at half-time.
A lively start to the second-half by the Canaries prompted a spell of early pressure and on 51 minutes they appeared to fall foul of another dubious refereeing decision. On this occasion it was a trip on Kane by James Tompkins that went unnoticed, after Wes Hoolahan’s angled through-ball had allowed the City striker to get in behind the home defence for the first time.
Again referee Clattenberg’s actions (or lack of) caused extreme frustration on the City bench and with the travelling Yellow Army.
An improved second half performance saw the Canaries enjoy a greater share of possession but – the penalty decision aside – they struggled to trouble Jääskeläinen in the West Ham goal.
On 70 minutes, a double substitution by Hughton – Simeon Jackson and Elliot Bennett on in place of Harry Kane and Wes Hoolahan – sparked some renewed life in the Canaries as they searched for a lifeline in a game that looked to be slipping away. Bennett (E), in particular showed an appetite borne of several frustrating weeks on the subs bench as he used his pace to trouble the Hammers’ defence.
The Norwich breakthrough finally came in the 90th minute when another Elliot Bennett run down the right flank saw his low cross thumped in on the volley by the right boot of skipper Russell Martin – his third goal in just two games.
Despite being roared on by the magnificent Yellow Army, City were unable to find an equaliser in the three minutes of added-time and had to endure defeat by a single goal for the fourth consecutive game.
So… disappointment for the Canaries, who now face a tough January with league fixtures against Newcastle, Liverpool and Tottenham coming up.
Whilst some ponderous defending for West Ham’s second goal was a contributing factor, referee Clattenberg now finds himself in the esteemed company of Messrs D’Urso, Ilderton and Oliver as referees from whom the Canaries can rightly feel a sense of injustice.