Photo Gallery: Norwich City show their new ruthless streak in Premier League at West Brom
West Brom 1, Norwich City 2: The youthful exuberance has long gone. Norwich City's squad is maturing into a formidable Premier League outfit.
West Brom claimed three points at Carrow Road inside the opening month of this season with Paul Lambert's men still adapting to their new surroundings.
Every mistake seemingly punished. Every na�ve piece of defending brutally exposed.
The Baggies had a touch of the bully about them that day. James Vaughan's damaged face after tangling with Gabriel Tamas late on in a violent act that earned the centre back an FA charge – but no penalty for the Canaries – epitomised the visitors' hard, uncompromising edge. Norwich rightly felt a sense of injustice.
Albion had a collective look of the gnarled veteran; a side packed with experienced players moulded by a man with more than four decades of experience in the dugout.
Norwich left the Hawthorns with the odds on emulating the Baggies' achievement in retaining their top flight status rapidly diminishing by the match. City enjoyed the odd measure of good fortune; none more so than when the excellent John Ruddy's initial parry from Jerome Thomas kissed the top of his crossbar and flew behind.
But you need more than Lady Luck's patronage to emerge with maximum points from league trips to QPR and West Brom since the turn of this year.
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City's Championship squad, and the additions Lambert made during the close season, headed to Wigan on that landmark opening day bound by a unity of purpose and a willingness to achieve a common goal. What they did not possess, save one or two exceptions, was players with Premier League nous and guile.
Victory at Bolton was a breakthrough moment. A defining afternoon when perhaps a group of unproven top flight players led by a manager who had never operated at the highest level realised just what was possible. Bolton's struggles since should not underplay the significance of Norwich's achievement.
City have demonstrated in flashes away from the secure confines of Carrow Road since that trip to the Reebok they can withstand gathering storms. Liverpool brought tangible reward, Manchester United only hard luck stories. Manchester City served as a brutal reminder the gulf to the very best on their good days will always remain a chasm for a club like the Canaries.
Norwich's Premier League fate hinges solely on afternoons at places like the Hawthorns – a ground where Roberto Mancini's stellar squad could only earn a goalless draw before Christmas. This outpost in the shadow of the Second City is a proper football enclave. A club rooted in its community set among houses that have bred generations of Albion fans. The Baggies' impressive academy building designed to nurture the next generation is merely a goal kick away from the ground. The support is loyal, the heritage rich.
Results at home for Roy Hodgson's men have been bafflingly inconsistent, but Norwich's path to victory was rooted in a collective will to resist. That and an impressive degree of attacking efficiency.
Ben Foster for the most part had a watching brief. Ruddy was by far the busier of the two. Yet for all the interminable questions on the paucity of clean sheets it was the Norwich man who emerged victorious.
Devastating counter thrusts have been the common denominator underpinning City's last two awaydays. Testament to an evolving style of play which has brought an extra dimension compared to those early, uncertain weeks of combat.
Lambert's men on their own turf ratchet up the pressure with incessant waves of forward momentum fuelled by a home crowd which has forced many an opponent to wilt. Fulham's rearguard action prior to Simeon Jackson's rapier thrust in the final match of 2011 was the most recent salient example.
At both Loftus Road and the Hawthorns, Norwich had to defend deep, retain their defensive shape and then strike on the counter. Rangers may have been down to ten men following Joey Barton's misdemeanour, but they continued to pile forward with scant regard for the stress to an undermanned rearguard until City raided down the left and Steve Morison applied the coup de grace. So it was here. Not once but twice.
Jackson's appetite to willingly run in behind stretched Albion's backline. Gareth McAuley's last ditch intervention had already foiled a potential threat to Foster's goal before Anthony Pilkington fired a long range ball into orbit for the Canadian to gather. Wes Hoolahan needed one glance to locate Andrew Surman.
The volley was sure and accurate. The goal a showcase, should any still question the technical proficiency of Norwich's midfield. Surman must have detected worrying parallels with his previous spell in the top flight at Wolves after having to bide his time in the opening months.
The former England U21 international started against Albion at Carrow Road back in September. He had to wait more than two months for his next involvement in the home win against QPR. Surman on this form looks indispensible – goals and attacking quality interspersed with defensive responsibility.
Never more apparent than his clearing header to deny James Morison a certain opener when his strike from the edge of the Norwich area looked destined to nestle inside Ruddy's right-hand post during Albion's onslaught.
West Brom paid homage to a goalscoring legend at the interval. Mercifully for Lambert's men, Jeff Astle's exploits to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his passing were confined to the big screen.
The Baggies would not be the league's lowest scorers at home this season if the man affectionately known as 'The King' was still leading the line. The hero of Albion's 1968 FA Cup triumph and member of England's 1970 World Cup squad.
Astle would surely have converted any number of half chances prior to the interval as Albion pressed from the front; denying Norwich time and space to build through Dani Ayala and Zak Whitbread. Ruddy superbly smothered from Simon Cox after Morison had threaded a ball through Norwich's overworked defence. The Scotland international later whipped a centre right across the face of the six yard box crying out for a ruthless assassin to pounce.
Youssouf Mulumbu offered the perfect counterweight in central midfield for Morison down the right and the pacy Thomas down the left to stretch the Canaries at will during the opening period.
Thomas' theatrical spin and tumble in the vicinity of Ayala stationed just inside Norwich's penalty box left Mike Dean singularly unimpressed. Ayala gave the official little option when the two combatants re-opposed after the break in the incident that handed West Brom a lifeline.
Shane Long punished the Spaniard's reckless sliding challenge from the penalty spot. The Irish international had been on the pitch barely five minutes. But for Ruddy's dexterity he would have been celebrating a brace when a neat pivot and first time strike brushed the keeper's left leg within seconds of his introduction.
Battle was joined. Albion's passionate crowd found their voice. Norwich at that stage were in control for the first concerted period; dismissively popping the ball around as the confidence from a morale-boosting FA Cup win against Cardiff started to visibly drain from Hodgson's side.
Lambert had his own game-changer from the bench. Grant Holt is cast in the same talismanic mould as Astle. This cameo typified why.
Norwich's skipper offered a focal point, a pressure-release valve for a defence and midfield pushed ever deeper towards Ruddy.
Holt wasted little time getting under the skin of the Albion defence and referee Dean in equal measure. One tangle with Craig Dawson towards the near touchline earned a rebuke from the official.
McAuley rose unchallenged but headed straight at Ruddy from barely six yards. Morison offered a timely tutorial when he strained his neck muscles to generate the requisite power to despatch Holt's inviting flick at the far post.
A header with such deceptive ferocity Foster could only parry up and over the goal line. It was Aston Villa away. It was Manchester City away – with one crucial difference.
And that, in the final anaylsis, is the reason Norwich can survive in the Premier League.