Photo Gallery: Streetwise Norwich City bully Aston Villa into submission
Norwich City 2, Aston Villa 0: Fraught final day dramas are over-rated. Masterful Norwich City reduced this Premier League encounter to an exhibition match.
Aston Villa displayed all the worst traits of a season that reduced the former European Cup winners to relegation fodder right up until the penultimate weekend. That is to take nothing away from a comprehensive shift rich in energy and attacking endeavour from Paul Lambert's men.
City's 12th win of a stirring stab at top flight life will have barely registered outside Norfolk. The nation was no doubt transfixed by the cataclysmic events unfolding in the north-west and north-east involving Manchester's finest.
No matter. Norwich have turned flying under the radar into an art form – sneaking into that second automatic Championship promotion spot 12 months ago before effectively securing their cherished Premier League status long before the tension became unbearable for those in greatest peril.
Villa were a pale imitation of the side who throttled the Canaries in the Midlands. The absence of seasoned internationals like Darren Bent and Stiliyan Petrov for prolonged periods proved huge blows to a squad at Alex McLeish's disposal rich in potential, but lacking that experienced hard edge.
Norwich looked like the streetwise outfit as they bullied Villa right from the off. Grant Holt used all his nous to outwit Chris Herd to despatch Bradley Johnson's swinging free kick. It was master against pupil in the Aston Villa penalty area. Holt's innate sense of occasion guaranteed he would occupy a pivotal role on the pitch prior to an historic coronation as a three-time winner of the Barry Butler Trophy at the end.
Equally fitting that runner-up John Ruddy should remind both the home faithful and watching England coach Ray Clemence of his magnificent shot-stopping ability. Eric Lichaj was frustrated with a one-handed parry low to his right after a prolonged spell of inactivity that spanned the opening 40 minutes.
- 1 Murder inquiry as teenage woman dies after car crash in Norfolk village
- 2 Man in 30s dead, two arrested on suspicion of murder in Norfolk town
- 3 Man in 50s dies after medical incident in field
- 4 'Heartbroken' pet owner thanks community after missing dog found dead
- 5 Two recycling centres to be closed - and replaced with new £4m tips
- 6 How Covid restrictions will change in England this week
- 7 Devastated family wrongly told prisoner hanged himself weeks before release
- 8 Wrestler sheds five stone in one last bid to chase his American dream
- 9 Vicar’s astonishing outburst against the Bishop in town's long-running row
- 10 Customers travelling across Norfolk to try pub's 'afternoon sea'
Ruddy's stunning finger tip save to push Gabriel Agbonlahor's strike onto a post after the break had echoes of his heroics at St James' Park earlier this year. For Ruddy not to be considered an able deputy to Manchester City's Joe Hart for his country this summer will be a travesty bordering on farce. Norwich's number one more than merits an England call up given the available goalkeeping stocks.
Villa counterpart Shay Given underlined again why he is unquestionably the Republic of Ireland's last line of defence at the European Championships. The 36-year-old routinely stood between a rampant City and embarrassment for McLeish's men.
Paul Lambert opted to reward those who had performed with such distinction at Arsenal – but the Scot is not big on sentiment. Simeon Jackson's effervescent running alongside Holt at the Emirates was deserving of another outing. Russell Martin was again deployed as an admirable calming influence over the rapidly maturing Ryan Bennett. Bradley Johnson earned another chance to anchor central midfield in tandem with City's thoroughbred Jonny Howson.
McLeish and his familiar assistant Peter Grant recognised the threat and countered, initially with Stephen Ireland tucked behind Emile Heskey on his farewell performance and the fit-again Agbonlahor. McLeish was clearly in dire need of a repeat of the England international's potent performance at Villa Park when he tormented the Canaries.
Lambert was acclaimed by his own within seconds of the first whistle. Villa's travelling contingent mischievously mimicked the home fans; an inevitable sub-plot to these proceedings given McLeish's downward spiral and speculation touting his compatriot as a potential summer replacement.
The carnival atmosphere swirling around Carrow Road was swiftly punctured when Holt was cautioned after James Collins slammed a free kick against the body of City's slowly-retreating captain. Holt's protestations failed to convince referee Martin Atkinson of his innocence. Norwich's number nine chose to exact swift and brutal retribution. Collins climbed illegally above Jackson, Johnson and Simon Lappin worked the set piece. Holt was the muscular recipient as he wrestled himself goal side of the inexperienced Herd to bundle underneath Given barely six yards out.
Carrow Road erupted in celebration. The captain had just rubber-stamped his ordination in the eyes of the Barclay – not that the home hordes needed much excuse for a celebration. Lambert's squad have served up plenty of entertainment founded on a fearless intent evident right from the opening game at Wigan. Given went full length to claw away Howson's curler from the edge. Lappin was inches from inflicting further damage on the shaky house of McLeish and Grant – the man who brought him south to Norwich – with a fizzing free kick Given shovelled behind.
Villa looked disorganised, disinterested. The exposed Eric Lichaj must have yearned for a premature end to his season as City identified the weak link down the visitors' left.
Both sets of fans broke into spontaneous applause in the 19th minute in recognition of Villa's midfielder Petrov. In the maelstrom of anti-McLeish sentiment emanating from the away end, Petrov's ongoing battle with acute leukaemia was a reminder of football's place in the grander scheme of things. Spanish defender Carlos Cuellar was presented with an indelible reminder of his final Villa appearance when the alert Jackson pounced on his miscued header, under pressure from Holt.
The Canadian slipped the attentions of Richard Dunne to slam against Given's chest before slotting the rebound into an empty net. In conception and execution the second goal was symptomatic of Norwich's mastery and Villa's disarray.
The away fans renewed their attempts to acclaim Lambert; as if a Norwich win served their purpose of accelerating the departure of the Birmingham 'fifth columnist' in their midst. The Canaries looked a cohesive unit; the constituent parts moving in the same direction with a common sense of purpose. Villa looked rudderless; an amalgam of individuals. McLeish bravely shuffled to the front of his technical area. A cacophony of boos greeted his appearance. Agbonlahor sensed a rare opening. Lappin showed excellent positional awareness.
Prolonged spells of home keep ball were the precursor to a wonderful counter-attack that typified the confidence oozing through Norwich – Howson switched play to Elliott Bennett and the overlapping Kyle Naughton. The harassed Lichaj retreated, but it was Given who came to the American's rescue when he pushed Elliott Bennett's low drive around his post.
Villa's exasperated full-back decided attack was the best form of defence when he latched onto Elliott Bennett's stumble only for Ruddy to paw his right footer away. Such was City's dominance, it was inevitable Villa would stir.
Ruddy denied Ireland twice on the restart; with a parry from Heskey thrown in for good measure after Johnson's profligacy spilled possession. Ruddy could be seen mouthing, 'wake up' to his defence in the aftermath of Villa's early second half burst; the underlying message was clear. Elliott Bennett's incessant drive carried City forward again. His pinpoint cross drifted to the far post for Wes Hoolahan to drill at Given.
Villa's over-worked Irish keeper then produced his best of a hectic afternoon just beyond the hour mark when he kept out Jackson's strike from the edge after Lappin had triggered a flowing move from deep in the Norwich half.
Lambert withdrew City's front pair to thunderous applause. Ruddy deserved plaudits for the faintest of flicks to divert Agbonlahor's goalbound shot against the base of his far post. Given applauded the dexterity from the other end.
Norwich's smooth passing rhythms regained a measure of control for the remainder of a one-sided contest in name only.
Attention was switching away from Carrow Road to the dramatic late twists at the Etihad Stadium and Stadium of Light as the title race took one final, unexpected turn.
Lambert's squad had expended enough energy, desire and heart over the proceeding 10 months to enjoy a comfortable, relaxing final few moments in a Premier League journey six years in the making. Now to do it all over again.