Monday, December 17, 2012
Those with long memories may recall Norwich City fans being taunted with the song “Perfect Day” thundering out around their nearest neighbours’ stadium after a particularly painful derby defeat.
But if ever there was a time to play it again, a perfect afternoon at Carrow Road for many of those same supporters, this was close to being it.
The visit of Wigan Athletic saw City’s record unbeaten Premier League run extended to 10 matches, their most gifted player signing a new deal and celebrating with a wonderful winning goal, potentially their next full international scoring for the third home league game in a row, Chris Hughton’s team climbing five places to seventh in the table, on the shoulders of the European challengers – and even scoring a league goal at the River End for the first time in eight months.
It doesn’t get much better than this . . . and Hughton was typically wary of suggesting that it might do when the subject of Europe was dropped into the conversation.
The City boss clearly regards getting 25 points in the bag in mid-December as more significant than his team’s current league position, well aware that the four matches they play in the space of 11 days over Christmas and New Year – the next three against teams in the top six – represent an exacting test of their ability to stay on the heels of the leading pack.
For now, though, he can take great satisfaction in City’s continuing recovery, and especially in the way a team showing five changes from the Capital One Cup exit at the hands of Aston Villa quickly put that disappointment to the back of everyone’s minds.
Those returning to the side played an important part in prolonging an unbeaten sequence that has been bettered only once in City’s top-flight history, when the team of 1986-87 went 15 games without defeat in the old Division One.
One of those back in the starting line-up, midfielder Alex Tettey, showed his intent on eight minutes when he fired just wide from 20 yards, but it was another of the fit-again five whose determination brought the opening goal seven minutes later.
Wes Hoolahan, fresh from signing a new deal with City that runs to 2015, wriggled through the Wigan ranks, lost the ball once but won it back from Wigan skipper Emmerson Boyce with a timely tackle, and teed up Anthony Pilkington to beat goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi with a rising left-foot shot.
A rare Wigan raid meant ’keeper Mark Bunn having to grab James McArthur’s shot at the second attempt, but three times before the break the Canaries were close to extending their lead.
Pilkington almost had a second when Al Habsi failed to hold a cross by Robert Snodgrass and he poked the loose ball just across the face of goal.
Steven Whittaker then fizzed a long-range shot past the post, before, on 37 minutes, a splendid move involving Hoolahan and Pilkington ended with Javier Garrido crossing into the six-yard box, where Snodgrass looked certain to score but watched his header clawed away one-handed by Al Habsi.
Wigan, who lost midfielder James McCarthy to an ankle injury – the result of a Bradley Johnson tackle that earned him a yellow card – made two changes at the break and it was one of the substitutes who put them level after 51 minutes.
Arouna Kone did the legwork on the left side of the Norwich box and rolled the ball back perfectly for Shaun Maloney to rifle a splendid equaliser from just outside the penalty area.
The Latics burst into life and Bunn had to dive to his right to keep out Maynor Figueroa’s shot, but the winning goal, in the 64th minute, restored City’s supremacy.
Pilkington returned the compliment from his first-half goal, taking Garrido’s pass and turning Boyce inside and out with some lightning footwork before crossing to the near post, where Hoolahan beat two much bigger defenders and Al Habsi with a marvellous header, City’s first Premier League goal at the River End of the ground since April.
It was Hoolahan’s first league goal of the season, though not the first time he has scored with his head – remember his brave diving effort at Cardiff two seasons ago.
Al Habsi stopped Johnson and Pilkington – in the latter case with a tremendous one-handed save to his left – extending City’s lead to a comfortable level before four minutes of stoppage time gave Wigan one last chance of a point.
The visitors were down to 10 men with Adrian Lopez receiving treatment, but it took a brilliant challenge by Sébastien Bassong to stop Kone levelling the scores.