Paul Lambert enjoyed a happy return to Norwich tonight when his new club, Aston Villa, put his old one out of the League Cup and brought him within one game of his first trip to Wembley.
Norwich, revealed in the census figures published today as the least religious city in England, had a Christian to curse tonight – the Belgian striker Benteke, whose physical presence proved decisive in a thrilling game that remained in the balance until a late double by substitute Andreas Weimann and a salt-in-the-wound Benteke thunderbolt.
The last time Villa visited Norfolk, they were well beaten by a side managed by Lambert – who promptly joined them. Chris Hughton, his successor as Norwich City manager, had hoped he would get "a good reception" on his return to the club he led to successive promotions; if it was not quite that, then it was hardly a storm either, at least until late on, when he responded to the gleeful Villa fans' call for a happy wave.
"I loved my time here," Lambert said. "I've nothing but praise for the football club; it's a great club with fantastic fans and I'd like to think they appreciate what we've done here."
Eight of a strong Norwich side lining up against Lambert were those of whom Hughton said: "There wouldn't be one player here that played under him that would have a bad word to say about him". But that was before his new charges denied them the chance of a first major semi-final since they won this competition – then the Milk Cup – in 1985.
Darren Bent, who had not started a game since scoring in a 4-1 defeat at Southampton on 22 September, returned to Villa's front line only to limp off with a hamstring strain after 35 minutes, for most of which he had looked lively – though not as lively as Norwich's Steve Morison, who put them ahead after 19 minutes and went close on several other occasions. Within two minutes of that opener, however, Brett Holman equalised with an excellent half-volley.
Norwich's best chance of winning it came with 14 minutes left, when Shay Given saved brilliantly when pushing Grant Holt's header on to the crossbar. But two minutes after that, Villa were ahead, Weimann finishing smartly from Eric Lichaj's low cross. The same player made sure of the victory five minutes from time with another similar finish when set up by Benteke – who then rubbed it in with his own thunderous strike in injury time.
"I thought we were excellent, but we've been playing like that [despite results]," Lambert said. Before this, Villa had kept clean sheets in three of their last four games, but they had won only once and scored only twice in that spell.
Hughton admitted that Norwich had been beaten by "on the night probably a better team". It was, he said, "a typical cup tie, very open at the end. For long periods of the game we gave a good account of ourselves but they profited at the pivotal moments. Their finishes were all good finishes."
Man of the match Benteke.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee M Oliver (Northumberland).