Jonny Howson’s 34th minute strike was enough to give City their first ever win at the Britannia Stadium and to end a miserable run of 5 straight defeats in the Potteries.
With a run of upcoming games that includes Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, the win has also breathed new life into City’s season and afforded some much-needed respite for under-fire manager Chris Hughton.
Much to the disgust of many, the City boss resisted the clamour for Gary Hooper’s inclusion – despite his two-goal salvo in midweek – with Ricky van Wolfswinkel again being asked to lead the line. In midfield, Anthony Pilkington was brought back to patrol the left flank, in place of an injured Nathan Redmond, with Alex Tettey bolstering the centre midfield area at the expense of Johan Elmander.
At left-back the attacking intentions of Martin Olsson were preferred to the more measured approach of Javier Garrido and in the centre of defence Ryan Bennett came in for the injured Sebastien Bassong.
In an opening 45 that was without doubt their best of the season, City had Howson’s strike to thank for going in 1-0 to the good. The mixture of boos from the home fans and cheers from the travelling Yellow Army that greeted the half-time whistle told a story all of its own, with City having bossed proceedings from minute one.
The tone was set very early on when a terrific run from Pilkington saw him cut inside and unleash a thumping right foot drive that was blocked by a combination of Huth and Shawcross.
Good possession followed for City with Olsson also providing some attacking impetus and quality delivery from down the left flank, his whipped in cross ending with City’s first corner of the day.
From said set-piece City went within a whisker of going one up when Robert Snodgrass’ inswinging corner was met by the left boot of Bennett, only for it to crash against the underside of Begovic’s crossbar.
The home side, now playing in a more patient passing style, struggled throughout to contain a City side who looked ‘up for it’ and their pressing game work well in denying Stoke any quality possession. Leroy Fer and Tettey in particular had great success in breaking up play and winning the ball back in dangerous areas.
The goal arrived on 34 minutes when City again won the ball back in Stoke territory. A deft touch from Pilkington allowed Howson a run on goal and with the Stoke defence slow in closing him down, the Yorkshireman unleashed a crisp 25-yarder that fizzed past Begovic’s right hand.
Having totally bossed the game up to that point the lead was no more than City deserved; it ironically coming after Stoke’s only effort of the first half when Arnautovic blasted just over John Ruddy’s bar.
The second period was a more even affair, with the home side enjoying more possession after the break – but City, with the back-four imperious, handled all that the Potters could throw at them and in fact enjoyed a fairly comfortable second forty-five.
When called upon, Ruddy proved again why he is on the fringes of the England side with a dominant display, not just in terms of his shot-stopping but in the way he organised his back-four.
Despite replacing Jonathan Walters and Charlie Adam with Jermaine Pennant and Stephen Ireland respectively, Mark Hughes’ men were unable to find a way past the City keeper and even the late introduction of Peter Crouch for Kenwyne Jones had little effect.
City’s only real moment of concern in the game came early in the second half when Fer’s tug on Jones’ shirt went unspotted by referee Taylor; a chunk of good fortune for once falling the way of the Canaries.
The closest Norwich came to extending their lead in the second half was twice via the left foot of Snodgrass; on both occasions the Scot cutting in from the right flank and making room for himself to shoot. The first effort flew high and wide over Begovic’s bar, but the second was brilliantly clawed away by the Bosnian with the ball destined for the top corner.
As the game neared its closing stages the home side typically looked to rally but with Turner and Bennett, ably assisted by Martin and Olsson, standing firm there always looked to be another goal in it for City on the break.
Johan Elmander, on for Ricky van Wolfswinkel who put in another lung-bursting shift, played his own part in the final minutes stages by holding the ball up and giving Huth and Shawcross not a moment’s rest.
Understandably, the long suffering Yellow Army celebrated wildly at the final whistle with the win taking the Canaries up to 14th place. They now find themselves on seven points and level with Stoke, Manchester United, Swansea and Newcastle in the Premier League table.
While the ‘out’ brigade were ready to pounce pre-match, particularly upon hearing of the omission of Hooper, Hughton should take great heart from a job well done; his team’s ability to retain possession and pass the ball with accuracy a pleasure to watch at times.