Agbonlahor runs Norwich ragged but sterner tests await

Aston Villa 3 Norwich City 2

Click to follow
The Independent Football

There is a widely held theory that Aston Villa, under the new stewardship of Alex McLeish, have flattered to deceive this season. After all, a motley assortment of League victories over Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic and Norwich City is not much to write home about.

Even the defeat of Norwich yesterday was fraught with nerves and only secured courtesy of a defiant rearguard action near the end. McLeish – the former manager of Birmingham City, lest the Villa fans forget – still has much to prove.

For him and his team, the moment of truth is about to arrive. Actually, moments of truth: included in their next eight matches are duels with Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. Will the real Villa stand up? By the end of that exhausting stretch, they might not be able to.

"I'm not really looking at the so-called bigger games," McLeish said. "I only ever take one game at a time." However, he was more expansive about the blossoming talents of Gabriel Agbonlahor, who Norwich never looked like taming: "He has shown real consistency this season and his performance today was exceptional."

It was Norwich who began the better and Shay Given, the home goalkeeper, had to be alert to save from Anthony Pilkington and Steve Morison in quick succession. Yet often the best form of defence is attack, and so it proved for Villa, with Agbonlahor getting to work, fast and furiously, on the left flank. He combined with Emile Heskey to set up a chance for Darren Bent but John Ruddy, the Norwich goalkeeper, was quickly off his line to smother the shot.

Norwich responded with verve. Alan Hutton fouled Grant Holt on the edge of the Villa area, and from the free-kick Pilkington curled in a delightful effort that bamboozled Given. It was the 300th Premier League goal of the season in Paul Lambert's 100th League matchin charge of Norwich.

Another statistic not so appealing to Norwich is that they had failed to keep a clean sheet in 11 matches in all competitions this season. Within five minutes it became 12 matches without a defensive blank, Bent getting ahead of Marc Tierney to touch in Agbonlahor's raking cross to the far post. Bent narrowly missed a carbon-copy centre, this time from Charles N'Zogbia, soon afterwards as Villa began to exert control. Yet it took them until the 48th minute to make that superiority count, and it also needed an error from Leon Barnett to give them a helping hand.

Barnett hesitated crucially when trying to decide whether to pass the ball back to Ruddy or to hoof it clear. He chose the former but underhit it woefully, allowing Agbonlahor to streak through and coolly beat Ruddy.

"Leon should have put it up in the stands," Lambert lamented. "He should have kicked it where you can't score from. But I'm sure he will learn from that."

Just past the hour it got worse for Norwich. Although Barnett had almost atoned for his misjudgement when going close with a header from an Elliott Bennett corner, he was at fault again when Villa stretched their lead. The ubiquitous Agbonlahor – running into England form, surely – provided another searching cross from the right and Bent got the jump on a dawdling Barnett to prod it over the line. Like Agbonlahor, it was his fifth goal of the season.

Game over? Not quite. Norwich are renowned for their late dramatics, and laid the foundations for another notable fightback when Holt chipped over a centre for Morison to nod past Given. Not this time, though. Villa held on and, after the international break, can contemplate the fixture list from hell. How they emerge from that lot should shape the rest of their season.

Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Given; Hutton, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; Petrov (Ireland, 76) Herd; N'Zogbia, Agbonlahor, Heskey (Jenas, 67); Bent.

Norwich (4-4-2): Ruddy; Naughton, Barnett, R Martin, Tierney; Bennett (Fox, 63), Johnson (Crofts, 35), Hoolahan (Jackson, 76), Pilkington; Holt, Morison.

Referee: Kevin Friend

Man of the match: Agbonlahor (Aston Villa)