Monday, October 22, 2012
So now we know. Norwich City’s first Premier League win of the season was all down to the fact that Arsenal were hopeless.
The team built up before kick-off as the new, improved Gunners, like a rebranded toothpaste with an extra red stripe down the middle, had instead suddenly gone down the tube.
It is almost inevitable that when supposed title challengers are beaten by a team in the bottom three at kick-off, the national media focus will be on what went wrong for the pre-match favourites.
Arsene Wenger’s men were so well fancied for the trip to Carrow Road that a 1-0 Norwich win with Grant Holt scoring reportedly produced combined pre-match odds of 100-1. Oh for a crystal ball.
It is true that Arsenal kicked off with only three of the side that started the thrilling 3-3 draw against the Canaries at the Emirates Stadium in May, while Theo Walcott, tormenter in chief at Carrow Road 11 months ago but absent for the rematch, was missing again, nursing a chest injury.
But it was widely accepted that the Londoners had rebuilt their squad impressively, so to dwell on the shortcomings of the visitors, as much of the post-match coverage did, would be to do a disservice to Chris Hughton’s players, who produced the best team performance since he took over in June – from the man whose new team provides their next opposition.
City were simply unrecognisable from the side that stumbled and crumbled to a 5-2 defeat at the hands of Liverpool on the same ground three weeks earlier, and not merely because only five of the starting eleven from that mauling had survived to face the Gunners.
With Alex Tettey and Bradley Johnson paired in central midfield for the first time and demonstrating some much-needed bite and drive, the recalled Michael Turner surviving a cool pre-match reception to deliver a sound display alongside the hugely impressive Sébastien Bassong in the centre of defence, and Wes Hoolahan starting his first Premier League home game of the season as the supply line for skipper Holt – under the watchful eye of Republic of Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni – the Canaries were suddenly a different proposition.
They snapped at Arsenal’s heels from the start and in only the second minute, Hoolahan set up Anthony Pilkington for a shot that whistled past the woodwork with goalkeeper Vito Mannone none too concerned about covering the post.
There was a swift retort when Germany star Lukas Podolski broke on the left from Olivier Giroud’s pass and fired across the face of goal, but little in the way of clear openings until Holt struck on 20 minutes with his third goal in successive games.
Tettey unleashed a powerful drive from 20 yards that Mannone was unable to hold, and Holt pounced, ahead of Podolski’s international colleague, defender Per Mertesacker, to tuck the rebound perfectly past the grounded ’keeper.
City continued to look more threatening and Carl Jenkinson had to make a timely clearance to stop Pilkington getting on the end of a Holt cross.
It should have been 2-0 on 34 minutes when Pilkington swung a corner in from the right and Turner arrived at the far post for a free header, but much to his despair, directed it across goal, wide of the target.
City ’keeper John Ruddy was a little busier after the break, punching clear a Jenkinson cross at full stretch – with Giroud unable to control his attempt to hook the loose ball goalwards – and saving a header from Gervinho.
Holt had his sights on a second goal and, after getting the better of Mertesacker, he let fly with a long-range drive that flew wide. With nine minutes to go, he had an even better chance to make it 2-0 when opposing skipper Thomas Vermaelen slipped over on halfway and he raced clear, but floated a weak effort into Mannone’s arms.
The Gunners fired a couple of late salvos, Ruddy diving to his left to make an important save from Mikel Arteta’s low drive, and Bassong producing a brilliant block to deny Gervinho a possible equaliser before the game entered five minutes of stoppage time.
The final whistle brought a tumultuous roar, greeting a result that lifted City four places in the table to 15th. After weeks of anxiety over that elusive first win, it was not a bad way to start.