Paul Lambert’s last game as manager of Norwich City was a home win over Aston Villa in May last year; since then he has returned three times to Carrow Road, and each time emerged victorious in charge of Villa.
His £7m deadline-day signing Libor Kozak was his matchwinner today, scoring on the half-hour, less than 90 seconds after coming on as a substitute for the injured Christian Benteke. The Czech found himself alone against John Ruddy, and although the Norwich goalkeeper saved his shot, the rebound was collected by Gabriel Agbonlahor, who set up Kozak to score – the first goal in English football for the man whose 10 for Lazio made him last season’s Europa League top scorer.
“He’s had to adapt after coming from a very different football culture, but his goals ratio in Serie A, where defences are tough, was very good,” said Lambert afterwards. “From the goal, his game grew – he led the line well.”
Villa’s victory was topped and tailed by two important saves by their American goalkeeper Brad Guzan.
In the sixth minute, Norwich were awarded a penalty for handball against Ciaran Clark; though Guzan was a good three yards off his line before Robert Snodgrass struck the ball, referee Chris Foy allowed the save to stand.
Norwich manager Chris Hughton, who revealed that Ricky van Wolfswinkel had been “expected” to take the spot-kicks – and will do so from now on – was phlegmatic about the save. “The goalkeeper did appear to come off his line, but that rule doesn’t seem to be enforced these days,” he said. “The miss undoubtedly gave Aston Villa a lift.”
Three minutes from the end, Guzan made the kind of flying save that conventionally attracts the epithet “wonder”, flipping the ball out one-handed from almost under his crossbar to deny Norwich substitute Gary Hooper a close-range debut goal.
Lambert was pleased with his goalkeeper, but not effusive. “That’s his job,” he said. “His job is to save.”
Hooper’s introduction in place of Johan Elmander after 63 minutes had been rapturously received by the Norwich fans – whose approbation turned instantly to fury when their new favourite, Nathan Redmond, was also replaced, by Anthony Pilkington. Hughton’s entirely reasonable explanation was that Redmond had been “shackled quite well” by Villa full-back Leandro Bacuna and the greater danger was coming from Snodgrass on the right. In truth, those substitutions made very little difference to a game in which the Canaries’ efforts were already becoming disjointed and remained so.
Villa had begun the game with last season’s double-act of Benteke and Agbonlahor up front; they ended it with the 6ft 4in Kozak partnered by the 6ft 5in Dane Nicklas Helenius – a sign, perhaps, of aerial bombardments to come, though both looked quick and capable on the ground.
Lambert appeared relaxed about the injury to Benteke. “I don’t know how bad it is, we’ll have to see,” was as much as he was prepared to reveal on the subject. Benteke, who has scored more Premier League goals in 2013 than anybody else – 18 – slipped while running backwards and appeared to twist his knee. He fell down again in pain as he returned to the field after treatment that was clearly ineffective, and was flat on his back on the halfway line as Norwich put together one of their best moves, which ended with Ricky van Wolfswinkel volleying inches wide.
There were not too many other close calls in a game that left Hughton frustrated at his side’s finishing. “It’s hard to take, because we deserved to win,” he said. “We created good chances but we didn’t have the quality or fortune we needed in front of goal.”
He will hope that Hooper will soon be up to speed to start paying off his £5m fee from Celtic, and that Van Wolfswinkel finds the finishing touch appropriate to an £8.5m striker –from the penalty spot perhaps.
Norwich (4-2-3-1): Ruddy; Martin, Turner, Bassong (R Bennett, 38), Garrido; Howson, Fer; Snodgrass, Elmander (Hooper 63), Redmond (Pilkington 63); Van Wolfswinkel.
Substitutes not used: Bunn, Whittaker, Hooper, Hoolahan, Tettey.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; Bacuna, Vlaar, Clark, Luna; Tonev (Sylla, 77), El Ahmadi, Delph, Weimann; Agbonlahor (Helenius, 60), Benteke (Kozak, 28).
Substitutes not used: Steer, Baker, J Bennett, Albrighton.
Referee: Chris Foy
Man of the match: Brad Guzan (AstonVilla)
Match rating: 5