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Monday, December 31, 2012
So a year that began with three victories for Norwich City ended with three defeats – but they finish 2012 in the same place in the Premier League table as they started it.
Twelve months ago, a 1-1 draw against Fulham on New Year’s Eve at Carrow Road left the newly-promoted Canaries 11th in the table. They occupy the same spot today, albeit with three more points from one more game played.
It is a very satisfactory position for manager Chris Hughton, though not quite as comfortable as it appeared a fortnight ago after the home victory over Wigan took his side briefly to a heady seventh place.
The Christmas programme was always likely to be a much tougher test for City than the games leading into it, but after failing to take a single point from three matches, they will be keen to avoid a complete festive whitewash when they visit West Ham United tomorrow.
Just which side is better equipped to start 2013 with a victory is hard to say, with both the Hammers and the Canaries hit by injuries and suspensions going into the New Year’s Day game. The last three league meetings between the two teams at Upton Park have finished in score-draws, and one would not envisage too many complaints from the travelling fans if the same applies tomorrow.
The same supporters would have been dreaming of a spectacular high-scoring draw – or even better – with 15 minutes left of Saturday’s battle with reigning champions Manchester City on another rainswept afternoon under the lights, but the hosts had left themselves just a bit too much to do after going two goals down in little more than four minutes.
The Blues took just 85 seconds to move ahead when Edin Dzeko’s knock-down enabled Sergio Aguero to cross from the right and a subtle first-time touch from David Silva allowed Dzeko to sweep the ball into the net.
Dzeko’s second goal prompted an awful flashback to that 6-1 hammering last April, though there was a touch of controversy as Blues skipper Vincent Kompany crunched into Bradley Johnson on halfway before sending Aguero clear and, with ’keeper Mark Bunn making a vain dash from his goal, the Argentine crossed for the Bosnian to fire home again.
Kompany was penalised, however, for a less clear-cut challenge on Robert Snodgrass after 15 minutes, on the edge of his own penalty area – and it indirectly brought the Canaries back into the game. Snodgrass dummied the free-kick and Anthony Pilkington drove it past England ’keeper Joe Hart via a deflection off Gael Clichy for his fourth goal of the season.
There were further scares for Norwich when Bunn had to tip Javier Garrido’s bizarre “backpass” over his own bar, and Yaya Toure thundered a shot wide, but red mist briefly obscured the Blue Moon just before the interval when Samir Nasri’s reaction to a foul by Sébastien Bassong earned the Frenchman a red card for an attempted head butt. After his free-kick howler in the Manchester derby, he had let the side down again.
Not that his departure unduly worried the champions, who restored their two-goal advantage on 50 minutes.
Yaya Toure’s through-ball found Aguero, who left Bassong flat-footed in his wake and deftly flicked the ball over the advancing Bunn.
The Canaries, who lost striker Steve Morison before the interval with a thigh injury, then replaced Alex Tettey with Jonny Howson and almost instantly benefited. Howson tested Hart with a low drive that the ’keeper pushed out for a corner – and it led to the hosts’ second goal on 63 minutes.
The kick was taken short and Snodgrass crossed to the far post, where Bassong headed it back and skipper for the day Russell Martin jumped to beat Hart with a glancing header, his first – but not last – goal of 2012.
Back came the Blues and, four minutes later, Dzeko appeared to complete his hat-trick – though it was officially credited as a Bunn own goal. Dzeko latched on to Clichy’s through-ball while the Canaries waited for an offside flag and the big striker produced a powerful shot that went in via the woodwork and the ’keeper’s body.
But the home side kept the game on a knife-edge when, with 15 minutes left, Russell Martin struck again. Hart, looking vulnerable in the air, failed to get to a corner from Snodgrass, substitute Harry Kane had a shot blocked, Johnson followed up and Martin hooked the ball in left-footed as Hart vainly tried to put his head in the way.
The home crowd may have sensed a repeat of the Middlesbrough miracle of 2005 but, alas, it was a last hurrah from Hughton’s team. Bunn saved brilliantly from Aguero, after which the champions employed all means, fair or foul, to see out the remaining 15 minutes and nearly seven minutes more of injury time.