Photo Gallery: Manchester City’s finishing school for outclassed Norwich City
Norwich City 1, Manchester City 6: The Canaries' Premier League story has been a tale of defying the odds. This was a day for the favourites to assert their authority.
The Canaries succumbed to a brutal display of truly world-class finishing and forward power. To cling to the belief that Norwich ran out of steam is to overlook the uncannily similar echo to events both in the final stages at Carrow Road and the corresponding fixture at the Etihad back in early December.
In each league game, the Blues relentlessly moved through the gears to punish Norwich with a late barrage. In Manchester, it was Mario's shoulder. In Norfolk, it was the right boots of Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez. The South American duo scored a goal apiece in the first-half that defied the laws of physics. Tevez's self-centred attitude to his employers should never disguise a special talent. The sight of 'Carlitos' celebrating in front of the Jarrold Stand with the Blue hordes he disrespected with his disappearing act earlier this season was frankly distasteful.
Forgiveness comes easier when you score crucial goals with the frequency and the quality he has shown in recent days. Pre-match, the away supporters unfurled a banner that conveyed one simple message, it said 'Together.' Given the soap opera Roberto Mancini has had to preside over this campaign you felt that was a touch premature. Prophetic was maybe a better description just 90 minutes later when a beaming Tevez raised the match ball aloft in a symbolic salute.
Norwich suffered the misfortune of encountering the Argentine and his rampant team-mates on a day that rivalled the potency of their identical Premier League win at Old Trafford and the 5-1 August mauling of Tottenham at White Hart Lane.
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Tevez's return to the first team ranks has had a galvanising effect. The sulking Balotelli is no longer top of the bill. It is the Samba stars who look set to play the defining roles in the title run-in. That is not to dismiss the Canaries' own role in their downfall.
Paul Lambert has an honest set of players. Mistakes were made in the build up to the first and third goals. Aguero should never have been shown inside for the fourth after the mastery of his opening strike. The hitherto imperious Ryan Bennett was cruelly punished for the fifth.
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But such forensic analysis is churlish. It serves merely to downplay the visitors' breathtaking excellence. Mancini's expensively assembled cast list remains the only side in the Premier League to expose Norwich with such surgical precision – both home and away the goals against column serves to underline their ruthlessness.
Lambert's squad have endured torrid spells in other games when they have had to dig in or when they have been starved of possession by technically-gifted opposition.
But against no other team this season have they looked quite so outclassed in certain periods. That in itself should be a cause for celebration. The transition has been a successful one. The mathematical confirmation of mission accomplished will come next weekend if QPR fail to beat Spurs – irrespective of how Norwich perform at Blackburn.
Yet even against the best of the best, Lambert's side enjoyed spells of parity; in the opening stages when Anthony Pilkington looked in the mood to carry on where had he left off at Spurs and following the half-time arrivals of Wes Hoolahan and Andrew Surman.
In each phase you sensed an opportunity to profit. Joe Hart looked far from England's undisputed number one. His weak punch under pressure from Aaron Wilbraham dropped invitingly for Surman to calmly drag City back into the proceedings. His erratic distribution from the deck at times was a distance from international class.
But at the opposite end Mancini has assembled the best cast list in the division. Meld the firepower of Aguero and Tevez to the creative output of David Silva and Samir Nasri, augment that concoction with the second half introduction of a fit-again Yaya Toure and you get an attacking armoury to settle any game, anywhere.
Norwich's best periods ended in Manchester City's goals. Pilkington's burst down the left forced Nasri to find reverse, but a sharp turn and hit in one motion had Hart sprawling across his six-yard box. Bradley Johnson's deflected strike spiralled away from Joleon Lescott before the England defender headed Grant Holt's header off his goal-line with Hart preoccupied by the wily Wilbraham.
Norwich's early thrusts displayed a healthy disrespect to the high rollers. Tevez was yellow carded for what referee Foy deemed a theatrical fall inside the area in close proximity to Ryan Bennett. Aguero also tumbled tight to the byline under the attentions of Pilkington. The Argentine duo were peripheral figures. Not for long.
Silva seized on Elliott Ward's stray pass to link with the agile Aguero who fed Tevez. The former United forward's ferocious hit veered towards Ruddy's left-hand post before changing trajectory and nestling in the opposite corner. It was a stunningly vicious strike. The half-time exchange between Ruddy and Jed Steer as the City keeper left the field said it all. Steer held out his right arm. Then his left to try and comprehend the flight path of a shot not even one of the Premier League's best could lay a glove on.
Aguero advanced onto Tevez's impudent back heel to hammer a rising effort past Ruddy into the top corner to double the visitors' advantage before the break. It looked ridiculously easy. The effortless nature of both goals belied the technical ability of world class players on the same wavelength at the top of their respective games. You genuinely feared for the Canaries. Holt's swinging half-volley from Russell Martin's clip dropped at Hart's feet. It was a start.
Lambert and his coaching staff have instilled a common belief and a resolve that no situation is irretrievable. This looked the exception to the rule, but the introduction of Hoolahan and Surman triggered a spirited response.
Hoolahan appeared to relish the freedom to probe at the point of a diamond. The Irishman shares the same creative DNA as the likes of Silva and the off-colour Nasri. Gael Clichy shepherded him across the face of Manchester City's penalty area but Hoolahan retained possession before a lift into Holt who dragged wide.
Surman punished Hart's misjudgement a minute later. Mancini was discovering what many of his profession have learnt in recent times. Away wins at Carow Road never come easy. Ruddy stood tall to parry Aguero's angled lash after the squat forward had dismissively brushed past Adam Drury.
Nigel De Jong then picked out Pablo Zabaleta but Ruddy was his equal. The visitors were displaying fresh evidence of that seamless ability to slip a gear or three. Just like title rivals United at Carrow Road in February when Ashley Young's introduction and Holt's equaliser merely stung the Reds into a prolonged onslaught that led to Ryan Giggs' stoppage-time winner.
Toure entered the fray for the ineffectual Nasri; a pyrrhic victory of sorts for Norwich's fightback. The Ivorian powerhouse shrugged Jonny Howson aside to tee up Zabaleta who burned Ruddy's fingertips. Toure then took matters into his own hands with a shot Ruddy could only parry; the predatory Tevez applied the decisive finish after climbing above Ryan Bennett to despatch a looping header.
Aguero checked inside Elliott Bennett to curl past Ruddy from the edge of the area. Another sublime finish and a game in the melting pot had been settled inside two second half minutes. Tevez and Johnson delivered the coup de grace. Johnson and Aguero also struck woodwork in a mesmerising finale.
Norwich had battled manfully but for one of the few times this season they looked out of their depth.
It was painful to watch for the home fans, but it all bore all the hallmark of champions.
That coronation may have to wait until next season if you take Mancini's public denials at face value.
The good news for Norwich is they will still be in the Premier League. That cherished top flight status will never hinge on tussles against the likes of Manchester City. The bad news is they will have to face their nemesis again.