If Cristiano Ronaldo asks for a penalty, he gets one.
On an evening when Norwich City electrified Carrow Road and produced a performance that any team would be proud of, the sad truth about the dynamic of the Premier League was that this was the only conclusion worth drawing at the final whistle.
If the playing field was already tipped in favour of the Canaries’ opposition, Darren England’s indisputably poor officiating – including a delayed and dubious yet unsurprising penalty award – just about killed them off.
In one fell swoop, irrelevant were the fantastic performances produced by Ozan Kabak, Kenny McLean and Jacob Sorensen. Irrelevant was the fact that City had outplayed their opposition on a budget indescribably smaller than the Red Devils and irrelevant was the work Dean Smith and Craig Shakespeare had put in to assemble a plan which succeeded in nullifying the threat of a Champions League team.
Smith’s starting XI was the product of a cocktail of injury, illness and ineligibility. The central defensive pairing ended up being a brand new one including a midfielder. Visiting was a side from Manchester for a 17:30 Carrow Road kick-off. There were so many shades of the Yellows’ 3-2 victory over Manchester City in 2019, so many indicators of another special moment, but what transpired was much closer to their 1-0 loss to eventual Champions Liverpool five months later.
How familiar it was to feel the balloon burst and the atmosphere drain from NR1 as the inevitable goal broke the resistance. How reminiscent as David De Gea plucked goal-bound ball after goal-bound ball from the air.
What’s most frustrating this time, however, is that there’s no blame to lay at the Canaries’ door, no reason to find for criticism. As City squandered their golden chances and allowed Lucas Moura to float through their defence a week ago, at least there was hope of improvement.
But how can Norwich possibly be asked to improve the standard of the refereeing they’re subjected to?
As Smith outlined, it was a performance to be proud of. “It was a good performance,” he said, and he was correct. “Defensively we had to be strong in the first half. In the second half, we were more aggressive and took the game to United and created some good chances in open play and from set-pieces, but we’ve got to be better in those big moments.
“We’re just not taking our chances at the moment. We certainly worked a world-class goalkeeper today and I think he got Man of the Match, which shows how well we did today.”
Chances aren’t being taken at the moment but the type of finishes were different this time around. At Tottenham Smith’s charges lacked conviction with every strike they attempted. Contrarily, Kabak leapt for his first header on Saturday as if he were trying to define to the Barclay stand what conviction itself meant.
The Turk boosted his own hopes of a starting berth with comfortably his best showing in a Norwich shirt, providing assurance that was certainly needed after captain Grant Hanley’s injury. Not only the ex-Liverpool defender’s composure on the ball but his fantastic reading of the game came to the fore, and his reaction to being omitted from the matchday squad upon Smith’s arrival must be commended.
Twinned with Kabak’s reminder that he was still around was a performance of similar sentiments from Dimitris Giannoulis, who highlighted the benefits of a left-footed left-back for all to see. The enforced absence of Brandon Williams gave the Greek 90 minutes to impress and as far as phrase definition goes, Giannoulis did a good job of ‘taking your chances’. An XI omitting the 26-year-old tomorrow night is unlikely.
If City can reproduce their performance from Saturday against the COVID-hit Villains they will earn points, as is true of the rest of their season. Those are the positives Smith will be taking forward, but in any case, if Cristiano Ronaldo asks for a penalty, he gets one