A lot has changed since City last stepped onto a football pitch.
A new prime minister, a new monarch, a new investor. Yet some things remain the same, including the ability of the Championship to produce an absorbing, frenetic game. Short on quality, high on entertainment.
The City fans paid their tribute to the late Queen immaculately. A minute’s silence. A rousing rendition of God Save The King.
Both sides set their game plans out early. City looking energetic, trying to move the ball quickly through the thirds. Bristol pressing very high, with three at the back and using the five in midfield to create overloads in wide areas, particularly on their right.
Norwich looked a little ring rusty, with Sam Byram, Tim Krul, Marcelino Nuñez and Kenny McLean all giving the ball away cheaply at the back. In the Premier League, it would have been 0-4 but the Championship is more forgiving and the City defence was able to recover.
Something else that doesn’t change, despite the early season accusations of being past it from some followers, is the ability of Teemu Pukki to finish clinically.
Todd Cantwell was fouled deep in City territory, Kenny McLean played a swirling pass forward, and Kai Naismith misread it horribly. Pukki didn’t. The Finn flicked the ball upwards, away from keeper Bentley before heading into the empty net.
City continued to play some neat football without ever really threatening, while the Robins tried to stamp some authority on the game. Sykes on the right was seemingly the main outlet, giving Byram and McLean more than their fair share of work to do.
But with McLean helping out on the left, the City midfield was left short-handed and there was the ever-present threat of the ball being switched inside to take advantage of this.
The intensity of the game began to increase. A passage of three or four ‘robust’ challenges on the edge of the City penalty area got the crowd going and City breaking forward down the right with Josh Sargent.
His cross didn’t beat the first man but as Bristol City played it out from the back, the stretching McLean intercepted the ball, which fell kindly for Aaron Ramsey. The loanee played a delightful ball between the two Bristol centre-backs into the area in which Pukki thrives.
There was never any doubt that the Finn would make it 2-0 and, in doing so, he became the fifth-highest scorer of all time for City.
But the goal signalled a period of Bristol pressure that would be only broken by the half-time whistle. They pressed high, preventing City from getting out.
The only recourse was a long ball, and Pukki is never going to win those. Bizarrely Sargent, who was so effective playing as a lone Striker, was unable to compete for the ball when it came to him in a wide position in the air. The pressure built on City.
The Robins’ goal, when it came, started with the overload on the right. Atkinson, bursting forward from the back was always going to outmuscle Nuñez as he scythed through the middle of the park. He played it wide to Wells who crossed for Conway to head home, who had managed to get goal side of Hanley.
There were no changes at half-time, and the second half continued pretty much as the first had finished. City showing a little more threat going forward but producing few meaningful chances.
Dean Smith made changes on 57 minutes, with Todd Cantwell being replaced by Onel Hernandez. Cantwell had played well, but the extra pace was sorely needed.
The tactical switch forced Nigel Pearson to switch to a four at the back to counter the new threat. Smith also withdrew Ramsey for Gabi Sara. The loanee had looked decent enough on the ball but a little lightweight at times.
For the rest of the game, City seemed obsessed with punting the ball to Hernandez at the first opportunity. While it was sensible to use his pace and the space he had, a lot of the time a more measured move forward may have been better.
Nuñez nearly got the Cuban away twice; the first was offside, the second intercepted.
After 62 minutes, Nuñez made a great run out of defence, sliding past two or three midfielders before setting Pukki free on the left, who won a corner.
Sara stepped up to take it and delivered a perfect curling ball to the near post. Sargent hardly had to move before delivering a powerful header that beat both keeper and the player on the line to restore City’s two-goal advantage.
Bristol City weren’t done though. They continued to press forward, Pearson making a series of attacking subs.
They won two corners in quick succession, but City held firm albeit helped by Nakhi Wells hitting the side netting from the second.
Hernandez was seeing a lot of the ball but was at his most frustrating most of the time. His best moment came when he bullied his way past Weiner, cut inside and moved the ball infield. The ball came across to Max Aarons on the right. His cross was cleared down the line behind Aarons but Nunez made a great covering tackle.
Sara was making his mark on the game. A neat flick to Pukki, whose ball didn’t quite reach Hernandez, but City won the ball back again, ending in a rasping, dipping shot from Nunez being clawed behind for a corner.
From the corner, the ball fell to Pukki whose instinctive shot with the outside of the boot was somehow saved by Bentley.
On 74, Smith brought on Danil Sinani in place of Pukki, Sargent moving infield. The logic seemed clear – beef up the defensive effort on the right and add some muscle in the middle.
Minutes later, Nuñez was wide on the left. Without support, he did well to retain possession moving back towards his own goal.
When City cleared the ball came straight back at them. Aarons tangled with a Bristol attacker and was hauled down, taking a boot to the head as they fell. The ball fell kindly to Sinani who elected to play it infield towards the corner of the penalty area and Nunez. The little man was unaware of the on-rushing Williams who steals the ball for Semenyo to lash past Krul.
On 82, City had a chance to put the game to bed. Hernandez broke forward and played the ball across to Sinani in acres of space. His first touch wasn’t confident and unlike Pukki in the first half, it never felt like he would score. He didn’t.
A few minutes later, Smith made his final changes. Hanley looked to have been struggling with a shoulder injury and was replaced by Ben Gibson. Nunez was also replaced by Kieran Dowell.
If Mark Attanasio was watching the final few minutes of the game, his physician may be advising him to reconsider his stake in the club.
Bristol continued to attack, City tried to counter. When six minutes of added time were signalled, an audible groan sounded around Carrow Road. But City defended stoutly – Gibson taking the safe, no-nonsense approach on several occasions.
As the game drew to a close, Sara did very well on the right. His excellent ball found Sargent, accompanied by Hernandez, both through on goal. Referee David Webb hardly enhanced his already waning popularity in NR1 by blowing the final whistle.
Do, pick what you like out of that lot!
Not a convincing performance. City never really defeated the high press convincingly – three years to the day after they did so so iconically against Manchester City in the Premier League.
With Liam Gibbs and Isaac Hayden out injured they lack a defensive midfielder. Cantwell and Nunez provide the heartbeat of the team but need that security behind them.
But still, six on the bounce and still not playing at anything like the level they can achieve. For the other teams in the league, this must be frightening.