In a season of contradictions Norwich saved their best for last with a thrilling 3-2 win in the austere surroundings of the Etihad.
For only the third time in the club’s history Norwich emerged from Manchester victorious in the battle of the ‘Cities’; goals from Anthony Pilkington, Grant Holt and Jonny Howson giving the team a deserved three points and the Yellow Army an afternoon to remember.
The win takes Norwich up to 11th place in the final Premier League table; one place higher than in the campaign of 2011/12 and their highest Premier League finish since 1992/93.
With 755,062 reasons to resist the temptation of rewarding some of City’s FA Youth Cup heroes with a place in his starting XI, Chris Hughton made just one enforced changed – Seb Bassong’s injured knee getting a well-deserved rest – with Steven Whittaker coming into the side at right-back; Russell Martin shifting inside alongside Ryan Bennett.
The ex-champions, with an embarrassment of riches at their disposal, opted to leave Sergio Aguero on the bench; Edin Dzeko getting the nod to line up alongside Carlos Tevez in their front line.
Norwich set the tone early on with a really positive start – Robert Snodgrass and Wes Hoolahan both prominent in the opening exchanges as the home side began in ponderous fashion.
A couple of decent looking penalty shouts – a scythe on Pilkingtons and a handball shout against Yaya Toure – both went unnoticed by referee Mark Halsey, in his last game before retirement, but did nothing to deter the City spirit.
Their persistence was rewarded on 26 minutes when Hoolahan and Bradley Johnson combined to work an opening for Pilkington, the ex-Huddersfield man finishing in emphatic fashion when faced one-on-one with Joe Hart.
Man City’s response was instant, and a well worked passing move created an opening for Jack Rodwell to make it 1-1; his thumping drive giving John Ruddy no chance.
Despite having got their noses ahead, but then seeing the lead wiped out almost instantly, the setback did little to alter the City rhythm and still – off the back of their two solid banks of four – they looked to counter at every given opportunity.
With the goalmouth action still occurring predominantly in the Hart goal, Norwich continued to look the most likely to add to their tally; Snodgrass seeing a free-kick saved by the Man City keeper before whipping in a cross-shot that eluded Russell Martin by inches.
Half-time did little to change the game’s pattern and Johnson forced a great Hart save from a close-range header; Snodgrass again the provider with another quality delivery.
On 50 minutes City’s nemesis of the last two seasons, Sergio Aguero, entered the fray in place of fellow Argentinian, Carlos Tevez; the Yellow Army having every right to fear the worst given his goalscoring record against the Canaries.
Alas for the hosts his presence added little to their attacking threat and the Man City forward line continued to be expertly handled by Bennett and Martin; the former, in particular, ending the season at the very top of his game.
On 54 minutes Norwich again edged themselves ahead, courtesy of their skipper. Another well-worked passing move saw Snodgrass released in acres of space on the right side of the Man City box, and the Scot used the time and space expertly to pick out Holt at the far post; his assured side-foot finish from a tight angle never in doubt.
For City’s skipper, in what for him has been a difficult season, it was his third goal in as many games.
For the second time in the match the hosts’ response was swift and lethal and again Rodwell was the scorer. With the Canaries on the attack, Man City broke from deep inside their own half with pace and power, and courtesy of Toure’s nicely weighted pass, the ex-Everton man was released down their left flank. Rodwell’s speed took him clear of Whitaker and his finish inside Ruddy’s left-hand post was clinical.
Still the Canaries surged forward at every opportunity, and their industry was rewarded for the third time on 65 minutes in the most thrilling fashion possible. There looked little danger for the Blues as Howson picked up the ball inside the Norwich half, but a barnstorming run that left four Man City players trailing in his wake ended with him beating Hart with the coolest of finishes.
It was a goal fit to grace any occasion and one that the rapturous Yellow Army celebrated wildly, the former Leeds Utd man finishing the season in a very rich vein of form.
There were a few nervous moments for Norwich as the game entered its closing stages, but with Ruddy imperious, and Bennett and Martin continuing to frustrate Aguero and Dzeko, the Canaries held on defiantly. There was even time for Alex Tettey – on for Johnson – to miss great chance to seal the points, as City claimed only their second away win of the campaign.
A great end to a roller-coaster of a season for Norwich and, for Chris Hughton in particular, very much a case of ‘job done’.
An exciting summer awaits.