Monday, November 19, 2012
Anthony Pilkington was not outwardly concerned when he was asked, just over a week ago, about his personal goal drought – and clearly the Norwich City winger need not have been.
After the goalless draw at Reading, a game so far removed from Saturday’s contest that it is hard to believe the two matches belonged in the same Premier League, Pilkington had scored only once in 19 first team appearances for the Canaries, stretching back to mid-February.
But something very special was just around the corner – a winning goal against Manchester United that more than made up for his absence from the scoresheet for most of the previous nine months. It was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Aerial strength is not Pilkington’s forte, he claims, but in the 60th minute of a fascinating battle that ebbed and flowed without ever quite reaching classic proportions, he rose ahead of England defender Chris Smalling to meet Javier Garrido’s inviting cross with a perfectly-judged header that some of City’s finest marksmen of bygone years would have been proud of.
He arrowed his header into the one place where United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, deputising for first choice David de Gea, could not possibly reach it and Carrow Road erupted. Had De Gea not been absent after having two wisdom teeth removed, the reverberation might have shaken them out and saved him a dentist’s bill.
Pilkington, whose previous goal was the first in the 2-1 Easter Monday victory at Tottenham, is something of a lucky charm in that City have won every game except one when he has scored, but none more memorably than this.
United could have argued that they were without some of their biggest names, notably Nemanja Vidic, Nani and a certain Wayne Rooney, whose ankle injury was followed swiftly by a dose of tonsillitis. Manager Sir Alex Fergsuon made no such excuses, however, when he pointed out: “You always miss your good players, but we had plenty of good players on the pitch tonight.’’
On this occasion, United were simply unable to get the better of a Norwich side who were composed, organised, hard-working and fast on the counter-attack – and when they did create openings, they found goalkeeper John Ruddy too big an obstacle, combining sound judgment with some excellent saves to guarantee his fourth clean sheet in five league games, and his fifth of the season.
As early as the third minute, Ruddy had to dive to his right to keep out Robin van Persie’s left-foot shot as United began brightly.
Robert Snodgrass and Pilkington flashed long-range efforts just off target as City began to find their rhythm, but skipper Patrice Evra could have given United the lead when he missed a free header from Ashley Young’s corner.
The visitors then escaped twice, first when Pilkington set up Garrido for a centre from the left that whizzed across the six-yard box with no one able to connect, then when Smalling made a splendid challenge to stop Grant Holt scoring from a Snodgrass cross.
Van Persie missed a real opening when he kicked thin air from Ryan Giggs’ pass, but Ruddy denied United the lead with a brilliant save three minutes before the break when Van Persie’s corner found the head of Steven Whittaker and dropped for Young, who struck a low left-foot shot that was heading inside the post until the ’keeper stuck out his left-hand to divert it wide.
After the break, City’s brightest spell was rewarded with the decisive goal. Wes Hoolahan played a one-two with Snodgrass before releasing Garrido and, from the full-back’s cross, Pilkington did the rest.
United made a double change with just over 20 minutes left as Paul Scholes and Danny Welbeck entered the fray, and the England striker certainly posed more of a threat than the anonymous Javier Hernandez, but he was guilty of a bad miss when he headed wide from fellow substitute Anderson’s cross five minutes from time.
By then, City had introduced two substitutes of their own and between them they might have sewn the game up in the last of the 90 minutes when Steve Morison, making a brief but bright contribution, put Jonny Howson clean through against Lindegaard, but the midfielder pulled his shot well wide.
It was left to Ruddy to make three points secure, pulling off another wonderful save from his own defender as Sébastien Bassong misdirected his header from Van Persie’s free-kick, the ’keeper reacting brilliantly to tip the ball over the bar.
And Ruddy capped a fine day’s work with another vital save from Anderson, earning a pat on the head from Scholes, eager to pounce on the rebound.