Match Report: Norwich City fans warm to new manager's common sense at Aston Villa
Aston Villa 1 Norwich City 1: Bennett sent off as home side surrender lead in manager's first encounter with Norwich since his acrimonious departure from Carrow Road
Sunday 28 October 2012
Norwich fans, bless them, have yet to be infected by the malevolence of the Premier League. Others, in similar circumstances, would have given Paul Lambert the full "Judas" treatment, but they restricted themselves to "We'll see you at home". It sounded more like an invitation to a tea dance than the threat of a rumble in the car park.
Defeat was unthinkable for the man whose move from Carrow Road to Villa Park threatens to benefit only m'learned friends. By spring, when a Premier League tribunal will adjudicate on an increasingly acrimonious dispute between Lambert and Norwich, both sides may have more profound things to worry about.
A draw, secured by a decisive header from Michael Turner 12 minutes from time, was the least that Norwich deserved from a game of questionable quality, which hinged on the dismissal of the Villa full-back Joe Bennett.
Villa's failure to protect a first- half lead provided by Christian Benteke was predictable. They have won once in 19 games and face a season of struggle, despite Lambert's insistence that he has "great belief" in a callow, uncon- vincing team. This was a game of critical collective importance.
Rows of empty seats confirmed the consequences of Villa's worst start in 43 years. A daunting run of fixtures – they travel to Sunderland before matches against the two Manchester clubs and Arsenal – hardly inspires confidence.
Villa are a traditional club, but find it increasingly difficult to maintain the pretence of being a big club. Better sides than Norwich will punish their inconsistency and lack of creativity. The air of anxiety was tangible, and understandable. Villa had collected 32 points from their last 38 games, the equivalent to a league season. Such a total would have resulted in relegation in all but one of the Premier League's 20 years. The owner Randy Lerner may be £620million richer from the sale of the Cleveland Browns NFL team, but the economics of his adopted sport offend his financial instincts. English football, with no a salary cap and the concentration of power in a coterie of elite clubs, is likely to remain an uneven playing field. Lambert's appointment was a conscious investment in managerial potential.
His predecessors, Gérard Houllier and Alex McLeish, were different, both in terms of personality and philosophy, but failed to engage the fans and impose himself on a difficult dressing room. Lambert is a new-age man, but philosophies are worthless without players of sufficient quality. As a player, he won the Champions' League with Borussia Dortmund and was encouraged by former Scotland manager Berti Vogts to take the unprecedented step for a Briton of taking his UEFA Pro Licence in Germany. Schooled in a foreign system, he developed a vision of football as a fluid, athletic game in which possession of the ball is 10 tenths of the law. Lambert also studied psychology, orthopaedic medicine and the full range of sports science. Darren Bent, marginalised once more, may be surprised to learn his manager assessed group dynamics to gain an insight into the natural tensions of the dressing room.
He was also taught to deal with the media in a rolling-news world. Given how dour Lambert comes across in press conferences, we will be charitable and conclude that wasn't his best module. He mumbled through another inquest, becoming animated only when someone suggested it must have been strange to seek weakness in such familiar players.
"That didn't enter my head at all," he said. "They are Chris Hughton's players, not mine. This is my club, a brilliant club. I know my players like the back of my hand." Memories of the fist pump which greeted Villa's goal were more convincing.
As an illustration of Norwich's weakness the move that led to Benteke's goal could not be bettered. Gabriel Agbonlahor held the ball up before releasing Brett Holman, whose cross found the Belgian behind ball-watching defenders.
Hughton, Norwich's manager, took solace from his side's positive response to Bennett's dismissal for a second booking six minutes into the second half. Brad Guzan pulled off a succession of saves before the pressure finally told. A lapse in Villa's concentration let Robert Snodgrass take a short corner. It was fed to Hoolahan, whose cross was glanced in by Turner.
Hughton said: "We are a team that needs to be on the top of its game to get a result. If the fans chant my name it is a reflection of what they see on the pitch."
No wonder the Norwich fans love a manager whose default position is good old common sense. It will never catch on.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; Lowton, Herd, Vlaar, J Bennett; Albrighton, El Ahmadi, Delph, Holman (Weimann, 75); Agbonlahor (Lichaj, 54), Benteke (Bent, 69).
Norwich (4-4-1-1): Ruddy; Martin (R Bennett, 46), Turner, Bassong, Garrido; E Bennett (Snodgrass, 63), Tettey, Johnson (Morison, 69), Pilkington; Hoolahan; Holt.
Referee: Phil Dowd
Man of the match: Guzan (Villa)
Match rating: 5/10
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