Welcome to the Emi Buendia show
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Barnsley gave the Championship leaders a stern test but they couldn't thwart the heartbeat of this Norwich City side, the midfield maestro driving this promotion push, the Argentine ace in the Canaries' arsenal.
This was the Emi Buendia show. Not all of it because of exciting attacking flair or a fabulous match-winner which will contest City's goal-of-the-season prize but also because of his passion, temper and defensive tenacity.
The attacking trio which started the game for the Tykes had a combined 87 touches during the game, according to WhoScored.com. Buendia had one fewer than that on his own.
That's not overlooking that the visitors were a good side though. Their energy and organisation both forced the leaders to dig deep and made for an entertaining game, hinting at a bright future under Valerien Ismael - even without four players due to Covid-19.
QPR had offered a similar display just four days earlier, when City couldn't make their quality count and couldn't keep the back door shut. This was another game of plentiful chances, when a far more comfortable winning margin was possible, but featured the moment of class required in front of goal.
The finish was sublime, Buendia twisting to volley Kenny McLean's dropping pass under Jack Walton from 10 yards with the panache which has made the 24-year-old so popular in these parts.
His seventh goal of the campaign was as much about the run though, spotting the space, darting forward at the correct moment to stay onside and adjusting precisely to capitalise on his chance. It was game intelligence, a speed of thought worthy of a greater stage.
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That's now seven goals and six assists from 19 matches. compared with eight goals and 12 assists from 38 Championship games during the title-winning campaign of 2018-19.
Buendia is averaging a goal every 2.7 games and an assist every 3.1. If he maintains that rate of productivity he's on course for totals in the region of 15 goals and 13 assists. That would leave absolutely no doubt that he will be playing top-flight football next season, one way or another.
It shows that he's listened to his head coach's call for more runs beyond the last man, that he's developed and learned. For context, James Maddison managed 14 goals and eight assists in 44 Championship games during 2017-18 before making his big-money move to Leicester and becoming an England international.
The bigger challenge for City now may be withstanding interest during January, after such an eye-catching winner and all-action display, but it's clear that it will take an extraordinary bid from one of the big boys for there to be any danger of that happening this month.
There were plenty of defensive demands against the Tykes as well though and there was relief in the 11th minute after his clearance had only gone as far as midfielder Herbie Kane, with the attack which followed resulting in Luke Thomas clattering the crossbar.
Prior to that an acrobatic pass to Max Aarons and through-ball to Mario Vrancic had ended with Jacob Sorensen having a shot blocked and in the 14th minute he had intercepted a Callum Styles header and hurdled a Mads Andersen tackle cleverly. McLean clipped the ball into the box as Buendia charged forward, with keeper Jack Walton eventually claiming the ball above him.
A rollicking from Tim Krul followed, as the midfielder jogged back during a Barnsley attack, rubbing his head suggesting Walton had caught him in that aerial challenge. He lost the ball as he tried to hurdle another Andersen tackle soon after and heard "react, Emi" bellowed by his unimpressed goalkeeper.
Although there were some of the usual screams of frustration from Buendia in the first half, that short spell seemed to fire him up further.
In the 18th minute he was adjudged to be offside when controlling a Ben Gibson pass nicely, teeing up Teemu Pukki for a good chance prior to the flag going up.
Seven minutes later he squeezed a pass to Vrancic, who played Pukki through, only for Callum Brittain to clear the Finn's shot off the line.
Lovely skill left Matthew James for dust in midfield in the 27th minute but Oliver Skipp wasted the pass into the right channel, and four minutes later he teed up Vrancic, who slipped as he fired a low shot from the edge of the D.
Early in the second half was a move which summed up Buendia's game perfectly. He tracked back to help Aarons, took the ball and calmly found Pukki, who returned the ball via Skipp, then sending Cantwell clean through with a left-footed pass which had the Tykes scrambling, only for Pukki's shot to be saved.
Lovely control of a McLean pass in the 57th minute led to Pukki crossing and Sorensen seeing a shot saved, six minutes before his match-winning moment which would have blown the roof off Carrow Road if supporters had been in the stadium.
Soon after some trickery saw a cross float past everyone and nearly creep in at the far post. His corner was also nodded over by Grant Hanley under pressure and another corner nearly went straight in at the near post.
In the 81st minute Buendia headed a corner as far as Cauley Woodrow but as the striker was crowded out he nipped in and flicked the ball past Styles to charge forward, only for a tired pass to fall short of Cantwell. That meant trudging back and while he did enough to initially disrupt Victor Adeboyejo, the Barnsley substitute was still able to swing in a shot which Krul held comfortably.
So it was little surprise to see him replaced by Tettey in the 87th minute, after such a busy afternoon. It was just a shame he wasn't receiving the standing ovation he deserved.
VERDICT: Classy display and an outstanding goal. After a strange start to the season, Buendia has been growing in confidence and determination with every game. Seems to be in a good place physically and mentally, revelling in his role as the protagonist in this increasingly impressive Canaries production.
RATING: 8 out of 10