Photo Gallery: Flustered Fergie’s tribute to Norwich City
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Manchester United 2, Norwich City 0: Forget the patronising plaudits and the pats on the back for brave little Norwich City.
The greatest compliment paid to the Canaries came from the only real source of substance that mattered. Sir Alex Ferguson. A man whose managerial achievements stand comparison with the giants of the game. A CV of such epic proportions the scale of trophy-winning success seems frankly absurd in an occupation where job security is largely non existent.
It came in the shape of Rio Ferdinand. The best English central defender of his generation. Such was the concern on the bench of the champions as Norwich City attacked an increasingly vulnerable backline the call went out to Rio.
The sight of England’s former captain on the touchline waiting to enter the fray spoke volumes. Ferguson was worried. The path to a record-setting 19th consecutive home league win had metamorphosed from a gentle Sunday stroll to a treacherous Alpine pass.
Sir Alex needed his most experienced defender to hold together a rearguard under serious threat. Anthony Pilkington’s snapshot had just thudded against the inside of Anders Lindegaard’s right-hand post before bouncing into the Dane’s grateful arms as Ferdinand put the finishing touches to his warm up.
Yes, United were ahead – Anderson leaping unchallenged inside Norwich’s six-yard box minutes earlier to power home Wayne Rooney’s flick on from Ryan Giggs’ corner.
Giggs, Rooney, Ferdinand. A glittering cast list sharing the same stage as the Canaries. A frightening reality check of how far Lambert’s revolution has taken his club in just over two seasons. Except Norwich were not on the tourist trail – magnificent though the surroundings were, bathed in temperatures more suited to St Tropez than Stretford.
Even the most ardent Red had to concede City deserved more for a performance free from the fear and suffocating restrictions that characterise many an opponent at the Theatre of Dreams. City’s squad is not scattered with the stardust of the modern day icons who follow in the noble lineage of Edwards, Best, Law, Charlton.
But they have a collective work ethic and desire forged in adversity and polished on an ascent so giddy City have needed to take on board oxygen as League One was scaled first prior to the briefest flirtation with the Championship.
Now Norwich have visited Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford this season – and been found wanting in neither Champions League outpost. Points may have come elsewhere in the opening breathless weeks, but belief and a collective confidence is forged in such arenas. Subdue a Fernando Torres or a Rooney and the Premier League looks less of a forbidding place.
Sat in the bowels of Old Trafford fresh from watching a Norwich performance rich in character and fortitude, Lambert bore the look of a man who had six numbers up on the lottery and then lost the winning ticket. He knew, like the superb travelling support, that days like these come around sparingly. Afternoons when you go to Manchester and carve out chance after genuine chance are career-defining moments.
Draped across the Stretford End was a banner proclaiming, ‘Manchester is my heaven.’ Not for Pilkington you sense on returning to a club where he had briefly spent part of his formative days.
A different ricochet via Lindegaard’s upright, a kinder, more deceiving trajectory from strikes that brushed Jonny Evans and Anderson and the man from Darwen would have had his name splashed across every newspaper and television channel from Norfolk to New Zealand.
Such is the fine margins of professional sport. Instead, Pilkington cast a dejected figure as he trooped off at the final whistle. There was no need. The wide player is a Premier League performer. His flash of anticipation had turned an innocuous header into a goal on City’s previous trip to the north-west and that taboo-lifting win over Bolton.
Pilkington will have plenty more good days in the top flight on the early evidence. Likewise Lambert’s squad. United entered their coliseum to the sound of trumpets as Wes Hoolahan’s men strode purposefully alongside. The vast majority present may have expected a support role. City were intent on sharing top billing.
Behind the Irishman the same 10 team-mates who had mined league wins against Wanderers and Sunderland. Lambert’s team selections kept friend and foe alike guessing in the first few embryonic encounters.
Now there is familiarity emanating from a formation that appears suited to the constituent parts. Russell Martin and Leon Barnett look a central defensive partnership fused together out of design rather than necessity given City’s horrendous casualty rate so far to the same vulnerable part of Lambert’s squad.
Barnett has flourished alongside the calming influence of the unflustered Martin. The former Wycombe man is rapidly carving a new niche for himself. The organiser, the talker in a reliable ring around John Ruddy.
City’s wide areas brim with youthful endeavour and dynamism, so important to the success of a formation requiring swift, raiding support to supplement the lone frontman. David Fox and Bradley Johnson offer a balance in central midfield.
Johnson’s muscular defensive qualities allied to Fox’s vision and range of passing. And knitting it all back to front is Hoolahan. The creative fulcrum during City’s rise from the Football League. An early cushioned pass set Elliott Bennett free but the gifted Phil Jones sensed the danger.
Steve Morison won the first of a series of mid air collisions with Evans. The alert Hoolahan controlled on his chest but volleyed over. Lambert thrust hands to his head. Not for the last time. Fox picked out Morison with a raking pass. The Welshman was the only Norwich player in the final third. United gradually started to squeeze space, pushing City back after a bright start. Rooney dropped deeper in search of decisive work.
The Croxteth dynamo harried Martin but Barnett was around on the cover to smother Javier Hernandez’s first time strike. Martin redeemed himself with a superb interception after Nani had swerved beyond Hoolahan. It was shades of Bobby Moore and Pele’s duel from Mexico 1970. A split second out and the Portuguese midfielder would have needed little invitation to hit the deck.
Rooney was inches from directing Nani’s corner underneath Ruddy’s bar from close range. But they were sporadic incursions into the Norwich penalty box. City’s back four kept a disciplined line. Fox and Johnson patrolled in front to further frustrate.
Ferguson briefly paused alongside Lambert in the visiting technical area as he returned to his seat after half-time. Glasgow brothers-in-arms.
Lambert had paid due respect during the build-up, but deference was not part of the game plan. City began to add an attacking dimension to their defensive solidity; as if the preceding 45 minutes had emboldened them. Morison again outmuscled Evans to burst down the right. Hoolahan waited in the box but Jones ensured the pass never came.
Martin and Johnson then combined to free Pilkington. Lindegaard grasped. The Dane was beaten soon after only for Pilkington’s strike to roll agonisingly wide.
United needed no second invitation. A killer instinct is part of any champion’s DNA. Anderson headed the first. Danny Welbeck slotted the second.
Pilkington struck the post in between. Ferdinand the firefighter entered shortly after.
Ferguson sat motionless when Welbeck’s sidefooted finish sealed the win. Arms folded, no outward expression of emotion. The United manager was acutely aware how close his side had come to losing ground to their city rivals in the early title sparring.
Lambert’s players deserved the acclaim of their supporters on the final whistle.
Norwich’s fans had come for their scarves. They left with renewed belief they can return again next season to pick them up.