Having taken Norwich City into the Premier League two years ago, Paul Lambert did nothing to help keep them there as his Aston Villa side earned the three points that should be enough to ensure their own survival.
Two goals by the spring-heeled Gabriel Agbonlahor, below, the second in the penultimate minute of the game, raised Villa to 14th place while leaving Norwich in considerable peril.
If Lambert had any feeling for the plight of his former club, he was more interested in his present team’s situation, and his analysis of that was simple: “We had to win.”
Not that you would have known it in a first half which was lively in a combative sense but in which chances were not so much at a premium as out of stock. It was poor entertainment, but everyone in the ground was concerned only with the avoidance of relegation, with both sides seeming more intent on avoiding defeat.
Failure to do that was “massively disappointing and frustrating” to the Norwich manager, Chris Hughton. “We knew they were good on the counter-attack, but for large periods of the game we kept them quiet, especially Christian Benteke [who scored a hat-trick against Sunderland in his previous game], but then we conceded two poor goals.”
Ten minutes into the second half, Villa punctured the home rearguard in the most literally straightforward way. Agbonlahor outmuscled Anthony Pilkington to gain possession on the halfway line, ran on unchallenged and fired an outstanding shot into the corner of Mark Bunn’s net from 20 yards.
Suddenly losing confidence, Norwich were for a time outplayed and their fans, previously in good voice, turned on them savagely, accusing Hughton of not knowing what he was doing. Then Robert Snodgrass, making his way into the penalty area along the dead-ball line, was clumsily challenged from behind by Joe Bennett; Grant Holt despatched the resultant penalty with aplomb, and Hughton’s name, no longer mud, was being lauded again in song.
Calculations were still under way to decide whether a point might be enough to save the Canaries when Agbonlahor, once more showing pace and purpose, snatched it away. Holt lost the ball in midfield, Ashley Westwood played it through and Sebastian Bassong, fearful of conceding a penalty, offered no challenge as Agbonlahor fired across Bunn into the far corner.
“At 1-1, as much as we want to win it, you have to make sure you don’t lose it,” Hughton said. “We’re in a battle [to stay up] and this was a game we wanted to win. We had an opportunity to make sure we got something but we’ve put ourselves in this position. It’s still in our hands.”
With a visit to Manchester City on the last day, they may have to beat West Bromwich Albion at home next Sunday, for which, Hughton said: “We need to show the good things we showed today.” They could also do with some of the “character and mental strength” Lambert observed in his Villa team.
The visiting fans greeted the final whistle with a rousing chorus of “We are staying up”. It remains to be seen whether Norwich can say the same.
Norwich City (4-4-1-1): Bunn; Martin, R Bennett, Bassong, Garrido (Jackson, 90); Snodgrass (E Bennett, 85), Howson, Johnson, Pilkington; Hoolahan (Kamara, 71); Holt.
Aston Villa (4-3-3): Guzan; Lowton (Lichaj, 28), Vlaar, Baker, J Bennett; Sylla (Holman, 78), Westwood, Delph; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor.
Referee: Kevin Friend
Man of the match: Agbonlahor (Aston Villa)
Match rating: 5/10
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