Swansea City A.F.C
Ayew (42), Hourihane (48)
Blow for Canaries as unbeaten run ends against promotion rivals Swansea
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
The intensity of the automatic promotion race cranked up a notch tonight, as Norwich City’s dip in form continued and opened the door to Swansea and Brentford threatening their status as Championship leaders, which has been held since mid-November.
Goals either side of half-time earned a deserved 2-0 win for the Swans, with a rare mistake from Tim Krul leading to Andre Ayew’s opener, followed by an excellent strike from Conor Hourihane -to end City's six-game unbeaten run in the league.
With Emi Buendia elsewhere as he completed his two-game ban, the Canaries continued their poor record without their creative maestro, which now stretches to winning just one of the 16 league games the Argentine has missed since arriving in England in 2018.
Daniel Farke made two changes to his starting line-up, deciding three games in seven days was too much for new signing Dimitris Giannoulis and bringing Jacob Sorensen back into action at left-back following the goalless draws with Middlesbrough and Millwall.
He also brought the fit-again Kenny McLean back into his starting XI, with the Scot replacing Mario Vrancic in the central attacking midfield role, dropping to the bench alongside Giannoulis.
Lukas Rupp and McLean were both trying to push forward when City were in possession and the visitors were setting a good early tempo during the cagey opening stages but Grant Hanley was needed to block an early Hourihane free-kick in the Norwich wall after Todd Cantwell had clipped charging defender Marc Guehi.
Krul was furious with a Rupp back-pass in the 20th minute which was heading goalwards, forcing the Dutchman to awkwardly bundle the ball away from Jamal Lowe.
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Three minutes later and top scorer Teemu Pukki finally got the sort of chance he craves, after only managing two successful penalties in his previous seven league games.
McLean found Sorensen on the left and the Dane stepped inside to send Cantwell on the attack through the middle, playing Pukki into the right channel, only for the Finland star to drag his low shot wide of the far post.
It was precisely the kind of chance Farke had called for from his creative players against the division’s best defence, who had only conceded 15 Championship goals ahead of kick-off, with former Norwich centre-back Ryan Bennett at the heart of their back three.
The Canaries have of course also been good defensively, with both teams enjoying unbeaten runs ahead of the clash of third against first – but chances were flowing.
Matt Grimes had curled a long-range shot to Krul after a corner routine and in the 28th minute a fine pass into the left channel from Chelsea loanee Guehi played Lowe past Hanley, shaping his body to try and curl right-footed around Krul, only for his effort to be held reasonably comfortably.
With the clash of potential title rivals lacking the big atmosphere to match the occasion without any fans inside the Liberty Stadium, the first half was largely two good teams cancelling each other out – before springing into life after the 40th minute.
First it was Aarons making a brilliant block, chucking himself in front of a close-range Hourihane shot after a long Connor Roberts throw from the left had come all the way through to the back post.
Then disaster struck for the leaders, with a rare error from number one Krul, ending his personal hot streak of over 13 hours of league football without conceding.
Roberts swung in a corner from the right, the Holland international totally fumbled his claim, Guehi prodded to Grimes and the midfielder found their top scorer Ayew in the crowded box, who turned sharply to prod into the net through a forest of legs.
The Swans had drawn first blood but before the break City skipper Hanley came close to a swift equaliser, with Placheta whipping in a good free-kick from the left wing and the Scot beating Bennett in the air to power a header goalwards, which Woodman was able to parry away from his goal.
It was the first time the Canaries had fallen behind in the league since the 1-0 defeat at Watford on Boxing Day – but the game quickly moved out of reach after the break.
With no changes for either team, a dreadful touch from McLean allowed Jay Fulton to squad to Hourihane on the edge of the box, where the Ireland international drilled a great low shot into the bottom-right corner, giving Krul little chance.
It was a third goal in three games for the Swans for the 30-year-old since joining on loan from Aston Villa – and took his personal career tally against Norwich to seven goals in nine game.
Against the best defence in the division, it very much looked an uphill battle for the visitors, with Ben Gibson and McLean firing wide from the edge of the box as Norwich searched for a response.
Farke responded with an attacking triple substitution in the 57th minute, bringing on Onel Hernandez, Mario Vrancic and Adam Idah for Placheta, Rupp and Olly Skipp.
With the City boss having launched a passionate defence of his team’s progress ahead of the game, with a 12-minute monologue trying to realign expectation about his team being able to coast to the title, he will have known just how tough this trip to South Wales would be.
Canaries fans had hoped it could inspire the kind of hugely important win that was enjoyed at Leeds in February 2019 but instead recent games have provided a reality check about how much hard work is ahead if an immediate return to the Premier League is to be secured.
Hernandez saw one shot well blocked and his run also led to Pukki blazing over, either side of Ben Gibson surviving strong penalty calls for a challenge on substitute Jordan Morris – but the Canaries would go a third Championship game without a goal, for the first time since Farke took charge in 2017.
The Swans moved up to second and to within two points of City with a game in hand, which is at Blackburn early next month. Brentford are two points further back in third ahead of a trip to Middlesbrough on Saturday, before playing their game in hand at Reading in midweek.
The Canaries now have a week to draw breath, thanks to their elimination from the FA Cup, ahead of a home clash with play-off chasing Stoke a week on Saturday – by which time Brentford could have knocked them off top spot.
Four games then follow against teams involved in the relegation scrap, with Coventry, Rotherham, Birmingham and Wycombe seeing out a busy month of seven games in four weeks.
- City’s U23s were also in action on Friday night, with Josh Martin, Sebastian Soto and Melvin Sitti all starting as the young Canaries drew 0-0 with Fulham at the Lotus Training Centre, despite the visitors having a man sent off midway through the second half.
Norwich (4-2-3-1): Krul; Aarons, Hanley (C), Gibson, Sorensen; Skipp (Vrancic 57), Rupp (Idah 57); Cantwell (Dowell 85), McLean, Placheta (Hernandez 57); Pukki. Unused subs: Barden (GK), Zimmermann, Mumba, Tettey, Giannoulis
Booked: Idah (foul on Woodman, 67), Vrancic (foul on Hourihane, 78)
Swansea (3-5-2): Woodman; Naughton, Bennett, Guehi; Roberts, Fulton, Hourihane, Grimes (C), Bidwell; Ayew, Lowe (Morris 75). Unused subs: Hamer (GK), Cabango, Latibeaudiere, Manning, Freeman, Dhanda, Cooper, Whittaker
Booked: Bennett (time-wasting, 64), Guehi (foul on Cantwell, 69), Woodman (time-wasting, 84)
Goals: Ayew (42), Hourihane (48)
REFEREE: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire)