A traumatic afternoon trying in vain to fend off the ghosts of managers past awaited City’s long-suffering supporters this afternoon as four goals in 16, suicidal first-half minutes condemned Norwich to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Paul Lambert’s marauding Villa.
To add to Chris Hughton’s deep discomfort this evening, the Canaries had even managed to steal into a third-minute lead via – of all people – Villa wannabe Wes Hoolahan.
But with a restless Villa Park beginning to play into Norwich’s hands, so City imploded in spectacular style with two strikes from Christian Benteke in as many minutes being followed by an all-too simple third from Leandro Bacuna and a wretched own goal from Sebastien Bassong.
It ensured that Villa would keep that much more breathing space between them and the bottom three – and, equally, will have done nothing to improve David McNally’s mood as he headed into the Villa boardroom afterwards empty-handed.
Defeat for Cardiff City and only a point for Palace will keep one or two wolves from the door. But it was the manner and extent of the Canaries’ defeat that will again have the alarm bells ringing as they seek to make full and desperate use of their remaining home games – kicking off with the vital clash against Stoke City.
If anyone ever wanted to add more spice to this afternoon’s proceedings – given both the bad blood that exists between the two clubs and their respective positions league-wise – then events of the third minute merely ignited the contest that much further.
With the injured Ricky van Wolfswinkel absent, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Hughton to slam Gary Hooper up front and stick to the same formula midfield-wise that earned such a priceless win over Spurs last weekend.
Instead, he opted to throw Hoolahan into the fray from the start; to test the Dubliner’s commitment to the Canary cause on the back of a New Year spent flirting wildly with a switch to Villa Park and a reunion with both Lambert and his big playing pal, Grant Holt.
It was an audacious selection that will have caught many off guard – not least the Villa defence who found themselves a goal adrift after just three minutes as Hooper and Hoolahan slickly combined to deliver the game’s opening goal. On a one-to-ten scale of ‘You couldn’t make it up…’ Wesley’s moment was up there at eight or nine. Not that he celebrated. Which won’t help his popularity.
The supporters’ rightful glee didn’t last too long, however, as Benteke cut Norfolk’s joy short with a leveller on 24 minutes as the game began to live up to its explosive pre-match billing. It was some finish too; instant chest control and a hooked, peach of a strike in front of a helpless Joseph Yobo that, once again, demonstrated what you get for your money.
Two minutes later and the Belgian World Cup hopeful was slamming further salt into some long-standing wounds as a close-range header gave him his second in almost as many minutes; not for the first time, ex-boss Lambert was enjoying the last laugh as Norwich’s early strike proved of no value – other than to light Villa Park’s fuse.
Hoolahan would be presented with two, fresh chances to level proceedings again as he and Hooper again found the required space between them in front of the Villa goal in what was proving a breathless first-half. In which Norwich proceeded to have the breath truly kicked out of them with two further strikes to hammer Villa’s advantage home before the interval.
Bassong’s own goal four minutes from the interval summed up Norwich’s afternoon as he and his feet found themselves wholly in the wrong place as Fabian Delph broke free on the Villa left and whipped a low cross back through the City six-yard box.
Before that Bacuna had proffered up a cool finish for the third on 37 minutes; no goal in six hours of football before this – Villa had now found four in 16, devastating minutes.
Anthony Pilkington arrived for Robert Snodgrass at the break as Hughton looked to find something, anything, to cling to out of today’s trip to the Midlands.
Whether Villa would push on and add to City’s discomfort was the next question. As was whether ex-hero Holt would play a part. For now the three-time Canary Player of the Season sat and watched from the bench. Given first-half events, you did wonder whether the on-loan Villa striker might add another twist to a miserable tale.
In the meantime, the game meandered on. It looked for all the world that it was ‘Job done!’
Johan Elmander’s arrival for Nathan Redmond would hardly have Lambert overly-concerned. Without a goal in his 21 Premier League outings to date, his season – coupled to that of van Wolfswinkel – explained much about Norwich’s plight.
Russell Martin would find Elmander alone in the inside right channel in the 75th minute. The snatched shot that bobbled way, way wide of the far upright was par for the course.
Christian Benteke he ain’t.
And nor was Hooper as he squandered Norwich’s lone, late chance.