Norwich City bring best out of stylish Manchester City
Perhaps to Norwich City's detriment they appear to entice the very best traits out of reigning Premier League champions Manchester City.
Roberto Mancini's galaxy of highly-priced commodities arrived in Norfolk towards the end of last season desperately trying to breathe new life into a faltering title bid.
The response was emphatic. A brutal exhibition of attacking power that blew the Canaries away and sent an audible message that surely must have resonated in the north-west hotbed of their bitter city rivals.
The Blues headed east this time around fresh from a Boxing Day league reverse at Sunderland and trailing neighbours United by seven points. Mancini benched Carrow Road destroyer Carlos Tevez in favour of Edin Dzeko, but there was no let up in the mastery of their devastating thrusts.
The Bosnian struck twice inside the opening four minutes and was denied a hat-trick by the Premier League's insistence Mark Bunn be credited with an own goal that effectively sealed a remarkable top flight win for the 10-men.
Samir Nasri's first half spat with Sebastien Bassong – which saw the Frenchman depart after a foolishly aggressive head butt gesture earned him a straight red – will predictably colour another fantastic advert for Premier League football.
All of which is scant consolation to Chris Hughton, his battling players and the majority inside a Carrow Road full house. A trio of festive defeats against high calibre opposition have inevitably taken the edge off a magnificent club record unbeaten run in the Premier League.
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Yet what will arguably cut deeper for a manager who constructed that surge on defensive resolution is the fact Norwich contributed to their own downfall against Mancini's world class cast list.
Manchester City were fantastic. Sergio Aguero is a gem of a player. The frightening thing is, at just 24, the Argentinian can only get better. David Silva is one of the brightest jewels in the Spanish firmament. His cushioned pass into Dzeko's feet for the opening goal was a beautiful piece of artistry only the top operators execute with ridiculous ease.
Nasri, when he is not fighting the world or hiding in walls, is a wonderful foil who offers balance on the opposite flank to Silva. Should you wish one could continue to drool over the champions' roster.
Yaya Toure chose Carrow Road to re-affirm his status as one of the best modern-day midfielders.
The Ivorian was a muscular presence in the trenches facing Alex Tettey and Bradley Johnson, alongside the excellent Gareth Barry, but when required he bolstered the visitors' attacking arsenal. One fearsome half-volley flashed wide of Bunn's far post in the first period. The spot and then the drifted ball over the top for Aguero's third was sublime.
Vincent Kompany is a leader of men; an impressive athlete who drove the Blues on in the frenetic early exchanges at Carrow Road.
But for each blue brush stroke, there was a smudged green and yellow imprint on the game's key moments.
Bassong has been a colossus for the Canaries since his summer move from Tottenham. Where centre back partner Michael Turner needed a period of adjustment to acclimatise to his new surroundings, the 26-year-old Parisian has made a seamless introduction.
The Cameroon international exudes calm authority at the back allied to a goalscoring instinct which in its own way has helped insulate City from the relative lack of goals from the club's striking stocks.
Bassong was at it again here; sensing the trajectory of Robert Snodgrass' deep centre to direct the ball back across the six-yard line for Russell Martin to glance home a second half lifeline.
But there was an unusual fragility to his defensive work – the crunching challenge on Nasri aside - which served to fan the flames in the shadow of half-time.
Aguero profited twice. Racing away after Bassong had tried to intercept Pablo Zabeleta's long pass before picking out Silva who fed Dzeko for the opener. Then five minutes after the interval when Aguero's clever movement and Yaya Toure's vision caught Bassong on the turn.
Hughton had strong grounds for his post-match appeal regarding the Blues' second goal, when Kompany careered through Johnson on half way, but Aguero and Dzeko were still able to escape detection to wring the most from the Belgian's good fortune.
Even the fourth and final blow inflicted by Mancini's squad will have left a sour taste. Javier Garrido's attempt to step up left the Bosnian in space to control Gael Clichy's raking diagonal before Bunn was beaten at his near post with the aid of an inopportune ricochet.
Norwich bravely responded once more when Hart's head failed to keep out Martin's stabbed close range finish, but it was a bridge too far. Given what happened on their last visit to these parts, and the bloated resources at Mancini's disposal, the Canaries' latest effort to upset the odds may well be portrayed in certain quarters as a vast improvement.
Mancini could afford to keep Tevez under wraps. Hughton had to turn to a teenage loan striker who had not kicked a ball for the best part of three months.
But listen to the Canaries' boss for long enough and it soon becomes clear that Hughton readily accepts such disparities exist across the uneven Premier League landscape his club now operate in.
Manchester City and their Arab-backed 'project' is only a barometer in the sense of just what it takes to parachute a team into the highest echelons of club football at home and abroad. Such defeats will not frame the Canaries' achievements.
Hughton views games like this one and Chelsea's Boxing Day visit as a challenge to overcome; which is why the self-inflicted nature of a third festive defeat will irk the manager and his players.
When Norwich perform collectively to their optimum, then days like Arsenal and Manchester United are not beyond them. When Norwich perform consistently, they are capable of going long periods without defeat in the Premier League and emerging unscathed from difficult trips to places like Everton, Swansea and Southampton.
On both measures, the Canaries fell short of recent standards against the champions. The hosts' character and fighting spirit has never been in doubt. Fresh evidence was served up again at Carrow Road that Hughton's squad have the stomach for a battle, but they have also exhibited so much more during these past few months.