Danny Welbeck’s 57th minute strike proved all that it took to condemn the Canaries to their second home defeat in almost as many days to keep Chris Hughton’s men all-too uncomfortably poised just above the relegation zone ahead of a big New Year’s Day trip to Crystal Palace.
It was – to a degree – rough justice on City as they dominated much of the opening period and forced United into making a change at the interval. Cue Welbeck’s arrival – and it was his sure and certain finish that decided the contest as Norwich continued to lack that level of composure in front of goal.
The effort and the overall performance were all that most would have asked after Boxing Day; it just lacked that one, killer moment.
News from the KC Stadium would have only deepened the frustrations as Hull beat Fulham 6-0. Manchester City’s narrow win over Palace would, equally, keep them a win away from the Canaries. The pressure on Hughton would, however, mount again should the trip to the Selhurst go badly.
Johan Elmander was among the most obvious of casualties from that miserable Fulham no-show; Wes Hoolahan the biggest beneficiary as Hughton looked to find greater creativity in the final third of the pitch against the reigning Premier League champions.
Steven Whittaker and Michael Turner (suspended) also missed out as club skipper Russell Martin and Ryan Bennett were restored to City’s starting line-up – at least there was no Wayne Rooney to concern them. Welbeck – for now – was also sat on the bench; apparently surplus to requirements. That would change.
In fairness to the Canaries, that Fulham reverse appeared to be well out of their system as they pressed hard in the game’s opening exchanges and, indeed, came agonisingly close to opening the scoring in the 17th minute as Martin slipped into the box off a Robert Snodgrass invite. His drive was palmed across his own six-yard box by David de Gea only for a lurking and wrong-footed Hoolahan to push the rebound wide with the goal gaping.
It had the desired effect crowd-wise as the home faithful were finally given something to sink their teeth into and responded as expected volume-wise. The effect was to keep the Canary pot bubbling as both Leroy Fer and Gary Hooper made their presence felt.
Come the 35th minute mark and whilst the scores might still have been level, there was Nathan Redmond forcing a fifth City corner – United, by contrast, had yet to force one. On this occasion, Sebastien Bassong would rise highest to meet the ball; alas his 15-yard header would loop easily into the waiting arms of de Gea. Norwich were still good value. And deserved rather more given their efforts in the opening period.
Hoolahan would have de Gea hurrying into a save as he skipped clear through the inside left channel; Hooper waited in vain for the little ball that would open up a better angle.
Deep into stoppage time, the home side would continue to press and probe as United struggled to dig themselves out of their own half. Martin would breeze down the right; Hooper and Snodgrass would both try and find that final space they needed to drill goalward. Alas, it would elude them.
But Norwich looked a million times better than the side that limply gave up three big points on Boxing Day. Hughton – and the fans – had their reaction. Would they get even a share of the points against a surprisingly disjointed United side?
David Moyes had clearly not been impressed as he threw Welbeck into the fray at the break and within 11 minutes had his reward.
The England striker ghosted away from Bassong before Bennett looked to smash the ball off his toes and clear. Instead a wicked cannon and inadvertant deflection found the ball falling back into Welbeck’s path and thereafter the result had a certain inevitability to it as he left John Ruddy flat-footed and rolled the ball into an empty net. One moment, one chance, one goal.
It was rough justice on the hosts given the level of their own performance, but again – if further proof were still needed – it was goals that change games, not half-chances.
All of which prompted the arrival of Ricky van Wolfswinkel for the game’s final 20 minutes as Hughton hoped once more that his big money summer signing could make his mark in the English Premier League as Hooper made way.
With 12 minutes of normal time remaining, it was Master Murphy’s chance to make a name for himself as the teenager replaced Snodgrass. He had all the confidence in the world when he drove just over from some 22-yards distant after Redmond had driven in off the left flank.
As one would expect, United were masters at seeing a game out and Murphy’s fleeting sight of goal proved just that – rarely again did Norwich get to see the whites of de Gea’s eyes.
United had done just enough after their first-half scares. And in Brazil-bound Welbeck, they had a player who made the difference when the goal beckoned.