Photo Gallery: Norwich City are Bent on self-destruction
Aston Villa 3, Norwich City 2: If one thing becomes increasingly clear as Norwich City continue to get to grips with life in the Premier League, it is that they cannot saddle themselves with the task of scoring four times every week if they are going to win matches.
In two successive weekends of defensive frailty, they have conceded three goals and emerged with just one point from a possible six, and if one is honest they could also have conceded three or four at Anfield in the previous match, for all that they earned their point for the fearless nature of their second-half fightback.
While the Canaries’ fresh, attacking football on their travels has earned great admiration from opposing fans and the more fair-minded managers, it is in danger of being undermined by the tendency, in almost every game, to drop at least one clanger at the other end of the field.
So it was at Villa Park, where City’s enterprising start was rewarded when they took a well-deserved lead through Anthony Pilkington’s fourth goal of the season, only to be undone almost as much by their own defensive uncertainty as by the blistering speed of Gabriel Agbonlahor and predatory finishing of Darren Bent, once of Ipswich, now of England.
City may find some comfort in the fact they will not face Agbonlahor in this mood every week, but with three of the next four matches against revitalised Arsenal, leaders Manchester City and unbeaten Newcastle, manager Paul Lambert may feel there is a little cause for concern at the back. His team has yet to concede eight goals, as have Arsenal this season, nor six, as have Manchester United, nor even five, as have Chelsea and Tottenham, but the day may well dawn if there is not a rapid improvement on the defensive showing of the last two matches.
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Certainly the Canaries have yet to confound the claim of one TV pundit who, while watching their opening game at Wigan back in August, predicted that they would be unable to keep a single clean sheet all season.
Yet it all started so well at Villa Park. In the opening few minutes, Steve Morison was denied by an outstretched leg and both Pilkington and Elliott Bennett forced goalkeeper Shay Given into action as the hosts were pegged back. Morison threatened again when he deftly brought down Bradley Johnson’s free-kick and tested Given with a shot on the turn.
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The unfortunate Johnson came off worse from a clash of heads with Charles N’Zogbia – concussion eventually forcing the midfielder to withdraw before half-time, a costly blow – and Villa might have gone ahead after 18 minutes when goalkeeper John Ruddy made a point-blank save from Bent following a free-kick.
But it was City who drew first blood in the 25th minute when Alan Hutton fouled the recalled Grant Holt – restored as skipper – on the edge of the Villa area and, from the resulting free-kick, Pilkington curled a glorious right-foot shot beyond Given’s outstretched left hand and into the top corner, a wonderful goal.
The equaliser arrived within five minutes, however, as Agbonlahor’s speed on the left flank left Kyle Naughton trailing, not for the first time, and he squeezed a cross between Russell Martin and Ruddy at the near post for Bent to touch home. City protested with some justification that Stephen Warnock had handled in the build-up to the goal, cutting out Bennett’s forward ball with his left hand raised, but to no avail.
Three minutes after the interval calamity struck for City as Leon Barnett attempted to turn the ball back to Ruddy from tight on the touchline, but succeeded only in setting up Agbonlahor for a one-on-one against the ’keeper, who attempted to whip it off the Villa man’s foot but came off second best and could only watch him slide it home from a narrow angle.
Barnett could have levelled when he headed wide from Bennett’s corner, but the killer third goal came after 62 minutes when Agbonlahor swung in a cross from the right and Bent stole ahead of Barnett in the six-yard box to knock it home.
City were thrown a lifeline with 13 minutes to go when Morison headed his third goal of the season. Holt, wide on the left, did superbly, cutting in on his right foot and curling the perfect cross to the far post for Morison to head home. But there was to be no late leveller for the Yellow Army to celebrate this time, and only a timely challenge by Marc Tierney stopped N’Zogbia in his tracks as he raced away in a counter-attack from a Norwich corner, attempting to put the game out of reach.