Photo Gallery: Mauling over, now it’s back to reality
Manchester City 5, Norwich City 1: Painful though it is, the scoreline reflected the gulf in class between the Canaries and Manchester City. But there was an even better indicator to grasp the seismic disparity between two clubs nominally sharing the same pitch and division.
With Roberto Mancini's men 2-0 to the good, Mario Balotelli and Adam Johnson left the confines of the home dugout to warm up on one of those archetypal wet and miserable Manchester days.
Two of the brightest young talents in Europe left behind them a Dutch midfielder who featured in the World Cup final in Nigel de Jong and two England internationals who both started the recent friendly win over World and European champions Spain in Joleon Lescott and James Millner.
Manchester City have turned fantasy football into a reality contest. Balotelli and Johnson surveyed the scene from the touchline. Gentle stretches intermingled with banter.
Two lads with their careers in front of them yet supremely relaxed and ultra-confident in such rarefied surroundings. Balotelli comes with plenty of baggage. And a �24m price tag. Considerably more than Paul Lambert lavished to assemble a squad now expected to compete on equal terms.
Johnson moved from Middlesbrough for an undisclosed fee but one can hazard a fairly accurate guess the figure dwarfed the initial downpayments Norwich spent on all of their summer transfer signings to equip them for top flight life during the hectic close season.
Johnson entered the fray just as the applause was dying down for Yaya Toure's third goal. Balotelli a few minutes later. Both finished the briefest of shifts with a goal apiece as the Blues' relentless forward thrusts eventually wore down Norwich to seal a final margin of victory that fully reflected the hosts' superiority.
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So it should. Norwich may indeed inhabit the same division, but they are operating in a totally different stratosphere.
Football in its simplest form may well be 11 players ranged either side of the halfway line, but Manchester City's cast list should beat Norwich's collective of genuine, hard-working, committed professionals every day of the week. That is not defeatist. That is not raising the white flag in surrender. That is brutal reality.
Why else do the likes of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri gravitate to the north-west? The Arab-backed project fronted by an Italian in the heart of one of England's former industrial heartlands has the finance to pay the obscene transfer fees. And underwrite an eye-watering weekly payroll. If Manchester City want to be the best, they have to attract and retain the best. It's why they have only dropped two league points in this calendar year at home. Why Norwich were the seventh club to attempt and then fail to leave the Etihad with anything tangible to show for undoubted effort. And why Mancini's men currently sit five points clear.
Lambert struck exactly the right tone in his pre-match comments when faced with questions over the vast financial inequality between his club, most clubs for that matter, and Manchester City. If he had the riches at his disposal he would go out and spend. He doesn't, so the cloth is cut accordingly. No jealously, no envy, just a hard-headed, pragmatic awareness that professional football isn't fair. You get on with it. You don't seethe at the gross injustice.
Norwich conceded territory and possession from minute one. Bradley Johnson was deployed in a disciplined screening role in front of a back four designed to suffocate the space in which the hosts could operate; seal up the loopholes for craftsmen like Silva, Aguero and Nasri to weave their magic.
Plug those gaps and others inevitably have to appear. Micah Richards offers a brooding, fearsomely athletic presence down the right. Gael Clichy a more abstract but no less artful option on the left. With Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure an effective anchor, the hosts' full backs raid almost at will. Anthony Pilkington and Elliott Bennett spent most of the opening period in reverse gear.
Save the odd alarm, Norwich navigated the first 30 minutes – albeit Aguero somehow contrived to sidefoot over from barely six yards. Yet there was no panic on the field, no agitation washing down from the stands at the hosts' inability to brush aside a newly-promoted club.
Mancini's management and Sheikh Mansour's money have fused to create an uplifting sense Manchester City is a club where everyone knows exactly where they are heading – in the right direction. A banner positioned in a prime location opposite the Main Stand proclaimed, 'Manchester thanks you, Sheikh Mansour.'
Doubtful that sentiment is echoed in the red half of the city, but even Sir Alex Ferguson would acknowledge the noisy neighbours are on the correct path.
Which right now translates to a calm assurance on the pitch. They don't need to rush that final pass, snatch at that shot; however long the game remains goalless. The home crowd have bought into the 'tiki-taka' Barcelona style of play, the rhythmic precision. Silva, Nasri and Aguero glide effortlessly around the park. A balletic whirl of graceful movement at times identifiable only by the colour of the trio's brightly-painted boots.
One precise flick of Aguero's lime green-clad right foot was all it took after Richards had escaped down the right. Leon Barnett was beaten with a pivot Franz Klammer would have been proud of before guiding the ball through Andrew Crofts and Marc Tierney. Lambert rightly reflected on defensive failings. But the execution bordered on genius.
Yet for all their glut of possession, Aguero's strike could have been an equaliser. Steve Morison had galloped clear of Vincent Kompany and the recalled Kolo Toure with barely ten minutes gone, but a heavy final touch tilted the balance in favour of the advancing Joe Hart. It was a rare moment of alarm amongst an otherwise serene shift for England's number one. Another came shortly after the resumption. Bennett latching onto Morison's flick but swerving wide to avoid Hart only to leave an insurmountable degree of difficulty with his attempted finish from an acute angle.
Even the most optimistic Norwich fan would have conceded a leveller at that stage may have simply served to sting Mancini's men into even greater urgency. Much in the same way Morison's opener against Arsenal recently at Carrow Road seemingly sparked the Gunners to advance with added potency.
Norwich remained well in a game they had no right to contest. Testament to the drive and conviction Lambert and his coaching team have instilled and re-produced at the likes of Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford and most notably Anfield this season.
What they didn't need was fresh defensive frailty. Not here. Not on this stage of all stages. Crofts and Edin Dzeko went to ground in a tangle of legs 25 yards out on Norwich's right flank. Nasri steadied himself with all the poise of a place kicker before delivering towards Ruddy's far post. Bodies drifted across a congested penalty area but there was no excuse – nor, you sense, would Norwich's keeper hide behind one. Honesty is another facet underpinning the club's rise over these past two seasons. The Canaries competed manfully but the gulf was painfully evident. Yaya Toure picked out Ruddy's far post again before Mancini turned to the cavalry. The game was up for Norwich; time to withdraw Aguero and Nasri for the pending battles at home and abroad.
Replacing them with a duo eager to impress and fuelled with an arrogance that comes from youth and sublime talent which no doubt makes both believe they deserve to be in the Italian's starting line-up.
If Mancini was prepared to call a truce, Morison's excellent towering header merely sparked the Blues into a last stand. Balotelli dismissively slotted a fourth with a twist of his right shoulder after Silva and Yaya Toure had picked another path through Norwich's tiring backline before Vincent Kompany profited from Wes Hoolahan's misplaced ambition to tee up Johnson.
It was cruel but it bore the hallmark of champions. Those with Norwich's best interests at heart know exactly what it took for Lambert's squad to reach the Promised Land.
They should also know what it takes to stay there. Trips to the Etihad are a mere sideshow.