The defensive virus that has recently afflicted Manchester United appears to have spread to the champions; but what fun it makes for the rest of us. It meant that instead of brushing Norwich aside as easily as last season, when they destroyed them 5-1 and 6-1, Manchester City finished an eventful Norfolk afternoon hanging on with ten men and just about remaining on the coat-tails of their neighbours.
City were a man short for the whole of the second half after a red card for Samir Nasri's tame head-butt, yet they should have been more comfortable. After Edin Dzeko scored twice in the first five minutes – he later claimed a hat-trick that will have to be referred to the dubious goals committee – City led 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2. But lax defending repeatedly allowed hope for Norwich, who had previously beaten Arsenal and United.
Russell Martin, the right-back standing in as captain for the absent Grant Holt, scored twice, having not done so previously this season, and an exciting finale earned his team an ovation. They finish an eventful year in mid-table, where they were last May, having survived the potential traumas of a managerial change and second-season syndrome.
It has been a momentous year for City, historic even, yet it sounds optimistic when Roberto Mancini tries to make light of the seven-point deficit at the top. Defending aside, his main complaint yesterday concerned the fact that if Nasri was sent off, Sébastian Bassong should have accompanied him down the tunnel. "Samir said he touched him, but the other player did the same," Mancini said. "I'm disappointed with Samir, he made a mistake and he will pay a fine. But I want the rules to be the same for everyone."
In the key incident just before half-time with Norwich 2-1 down, Bassong crashed through a tackle on Nasri, who reacted unwisely by leaning into his face. Bassong held his ground; there would not have been a mark on him but the referee Mike Jones consulted an assistant and waved a red card.
It went almost unnoticed that at the same time Norwich had to take off Holt's replacement, Steve Morison, with a groin injury, and their chance of a revival seemed to have gone early in the second half when the outstanding Sergio Aguero latched on to Yaya Touré's pass and lobbed the reserve goalkeeper Mark Bunn. But after a short corner on the right, Robert Snodgrass crossed for Bassong to head across goal and find Martin unmarked.
Keeping Aguero up alongside Dzeko in a 4-3-2 formation gave City counter-attacking opportunities and within three minutes they were two goals to the good again, Gaël Clichy's long ball sending Dzeko through to shoot in off a post and the keeper, who may be credited with an unwanted own goal. Regardless, he should not have been beaten low at his near post.
Still Norwich would not submit. In a scramble following a corner, Martin beat Simeon Jackson to the ball to score again and keep the home crowd hoping. But in the end it was Aguero – probably offside – who came closest to scoring, forcing Bunn into an instinctive save.
"You can't be two goals down so early and not have a real tough game," Norwich's manager, Chris Hughton, said, which proved to be the case. Dzeko had scored only one goal in 13 games dating back to October, but before some spectators were in the ground he had two more. After only 80 seconds, Aguero's chip found David Silva unmarked – Martin was the culprit – and the Spaniard laid the ball off first time for Dzeko.
The second was controversial, as Vincent Kompany went in on Bradley Johnson, sliding forward in a manner often penalised these days, to win the ball and play it forward for Aguero. He drifted wide of Bunn and Dzeko knocked in his cut-back.
Having had their defence pulled apart all too easily with slick passing and interchanging, Norwich may have been a little surprised to halve the deficit before a quarter of an hour had been played. As in the recent late defeat by United, a City wall proved to have a hole in it when a free-kick was given against Kompany. Anthony Pilkington scored with a touch off Clichy.
"We needed to keep it at 2-1 for longer," Hughton said, and when his team failed to do so, they were struggling again even against 10 men. A third successive defeat was the eventual outcome, but all have come against teams in the top six and as Hughton pointed out, all by the odd goal.
Norwich (4-5-1): Bunn; R Martin, Bassong, Turner, Garrido; Pilkington, Johnson, Tettey (Howsen, 57), Snodgrass, Hoolahan (Jackson, 74); Morison (Kane 45)
Manchester City (4-5-1): Hart: Kompany, Zabaleta, Nastasic, Clichy: Y Touré, Barry, Aguero (Garcia, 90), Silva (Milner, 56), Nasri; Dzeko (Lescott, 81)
Referee: Mike Jones .
Man of the match: Dzeko (Manchester City)
Match rating: 9/10