Friday 9 December 2016

Norwich hold firm to put another dent in City's fading title hopes

Norwich City 0-0 Manchester City

Paul Doyle

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

Manchester City's David Silva looks dejected after the game. Photo: Reuters
Manchester City's David Silva looks dejected after the game. Photo: Reuters
Manchester City's Jesus Navas in action with Norwich City's Graham Dorrans. Photo: Reuters
Manchester City's Sergio Aguero attempts to evade a tackle from Norwich City's Jonny Howson. Photo: Reuters
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini looks on. Photo: Reuters

Manchester City moved a point closer to Leicester City at the top of the Premier League table, but this result surely represents ground lost by them in the title race. Norwich City, on other hand, gained hope that this point, won through a spirited performance and their first clean sheet in more two months, could prove a springboard to survival.

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Manchester City have dished out heavy beatings to Norwich in many recent encounters, including a 3-0 win here in the FA Cup in January, but this time, when only victory would have fuelled belief that they can close the gap on the league leaders, they lacked creativity and sharpness. Norwich initially seemed there for the taking, but emerged as deserving recipients of a point. Manuel Pellegrini's would-be champions have not won back-to-back league games since October.

Norwich started with the nervousness of a team teetering on the brink. January's 3-0 Cup defeat to these opponents had triggered a run of nine defeats and one draw from 10 matches in all competitions, leaving the Canaries in the relegation zone and their confidence at rock bottom. The hosts' jitters served as an invitation to the visitors to make themselves at home again.

Pellegrini's men were discomforted only by a couple of clumsy late tackles on David Silva by Russell Martin and Ryan Bennett, the latter being booked for his one in the 10th minute. Beyond that, City were at ease, hogging possession almost at will. But they struggled to come up with productive ways of using it.

Norwich may have been discombobulated, but at least they were determined and that was enough to see them through the opening minutes, as City failed to take advantage of their apparent superiority. When Martin headed an attempted clearance on to Sergio Aguero, the Argentinian striker gave him enough time to recover and block the ensuing shot. And when Fernandinho produced a rare incisive pass to put Gael Clichy clean through, the left-back miscontrolled and let the ball run out of play. By that stage, all home keeper John Ruddy had done was awkwardly push a 20-yard free-kick by Aguero over the bar. Not until the 29th minute did Ruddy have to excel, plunging to his right to tip away a low drive from Aguero with one hand.

That shot came against the run of play because Norwich, encouraged by the visitors' impotence, had started to apply pressure at the other end. Nicolas Otamendi proved, again, that the visiting defence is not immune to jitters and was booked for a panicky foul on Martin, as the right-back tried to complete a one-two with Nathan Redmond. With Martin Olsson supplying regular crosses from the left, the Carrow Road crowd began to belt out hopeful chants. Patrick Bamford nearly brought them ecstatic roars in the 39th minute when he outwitted Otamendi and hit a half-volley over Joe Hart from nearly 30 yards. There were exasperated yelps all round when the ball cannoned out off the crossbar.

By first-half stoppage-time, when Matt Jarvis shot just wide from 16 yards, the title-chasers were now a distinctly slovenly outfit. David Silva flitted about purposefully, but too few of the Spaniard's team-mates were on his wavelength in the first half. Wilfried Bony, again chosen ahead of Kelechi Iheanacho, was exerting no influence on proceedings, other than to vex the travelling fans by his ineffective presence until his replacement by Raheem Sterling in the 58th minute, while Jesus Navas was unproductive with the space given to him. In the middle, there was a large Yaya Toure-shaped hole. The Ivorian has his flaws, but he also boasts a creative menace that none of his team-mates provided in his absence.

City started the second half with renewed urgency. That made Norwich defend with renewed nervousness at first, but not with less commitment. The visitors still struggled to penetrate. Just after the hour, Silva, playing more centrally following the introduction of Sterling, spotted a clever run by Fernandinho and reward it with a beautiful pass. But the Brazilian eschewed a straightforward shot from 16 yards and instead offloaded to Aguero, who bumbled a moment before getting off a shot that Timm Klose blocked. Aguero sought to make amends moments later with a jagged run towards the area. Klose took him down just outside and the free-kick yielded nothing.

It was now a pulsating contest. City had most of the ball, but the hosts carried a threat on the counter-attack. Alex Neil threw on two powerful strikers - Cameron Jerome and Dieumerci Mbokani - for Bamford and Wes Hoolahan in the 67th minute, and 10 minutes later, Pellegrini finally replaced Navas with the young predator Iheanachu. But Norwich's remained brilliantly defiant and the striker found nothing to feed off.

Neil's team came closest to snatching a winning goal after a miscued clearance by Vincent Kompany, only for Graham Dorrans to slash wide from the edge of the box. The final whistle still brought rejoicing from the home fans. The away fans must fear they will soon have to wave goodbye to their title hopes.

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