Aston Villa found a way to make things interesting (they always do, it seems) but in the end this was an excellent performance against a dangerous looking Norwich City side and a big three points heading into the international break. Gabriel Agbonlahor was once again the best player on the pitch as his run of stunningly good form continues while Darren Bent once again reminded us all how incredibly good he can be when he's getting the right kind of service. There will be some concerns about the defense but a lot of credit has to go to the Canaries; they've got some very, very good attacking players and did a tremendous job piling on the pressure after it looked like Villa had put things away.
Darren Bent had an opportunity to open the scoring just under 20 minutes in when Emile Heskey and Agbonlahor combined to find him in space before the striker's shot was saved well by John Ruddy. It's always frustrating to see a striker-particularly one of Bent's caliber-miss a chance when given that much space, but upon a second look there wasn't much else he could have done; Bent didn't have a lot of time to put himself in a better position and Ruddy did well to make himself big and give Bent only the smallest of windows to goal. Villa would rue the missed chance just five minutes later when Alan Hutton's silly foul gave Norwich a free kick right at the edge of the area. Anthony Pilkington's set piece effort was a stunner, giving the visitors a lead in the 25th minute. Though Norwich City started well the goal itself came against the run of play and it took a lot of the air out of the Villa Park crowd.
The Canaries' wouldn't last long however, as Agbonlahor found Bent on the end of a wickedly struck low cross that the striker slid in to redirect into the net. It's getting harder and harder to take the protestations of the "Gabby isn't a winger" crowd seriously; we all know his speed and on-ball skills make him incredibly dangerous in space down the flank, we've seen how well he does cutting inside and running at goal and with the kind of service he's provided so far this season the plausible reasons for complaint are beginning to dry up. The one legitimate concern would likely be his lack of defensive prowess, but that's less of an issue when you're playing with two holding midfielders. I'm not trying to make the case that Gabby is playing as well as he is simply because of where he's lining up. But if Villa are going to play a 4-2-3-1 (or 4-5-1, depending on how you want to look at things) then he's got to get on the pitch somewhere and so far the left wing has worked out pretty well for him.
Villa continued to have the better of the play for the final quarter of an hour but despite some quality build up and solid chances they weren't able to convert again before the whistle. And fears that they'd lose momentum as a result were dashed right at the start of the second half when Agbonlahor pounced on Leon Barnett's comically bad back-pass, rounded the keeper and finished with his left foot to make it 2-1. There was the sense that Villa were very much in control of things at that point and though it took them some time they'd grab what ultimately turned out to be the winner in the 61st minute. Agbonlahor pounced on a loose ball at the edge of the box and sent in yet another glorious low cross for Bent to finish, making it 3-1 against a Norwich side that looked very much back on their heels. It was hard to see the Canaries mounting much of a comeback push at that point, but Paul Lambert's men weren't going to go down without a fight. Villa did not immediately shift towards a more defensive posture and looked a threat to score again, but Norwich began pouring men forward and finding space to make things difficult on the back line.
Things would get quite interesting in the 78th minute when Grant Holt made what may well have been the best cross on a day of pretty fantastic crosses, finding Steve Morison at the far post to nod home past a helpless Shay Given. Seconds later Holt put in another similarly excellent ball and had one of his teammates been able to get on the end of it I may well be writing a very different kind of post right now. Thankfully the ball went into touch, but the remainder of the game would be far from comfortable. Stiliyan Petrov was forced to come off thanks to a hamstring problem just before Morison's goal and Alex McLeish made the somewhat puzzling decision to replace him with Stephen Ireland. Ireland actually played pretty well in his brief cameo but he's just never going to be an especially effective defensive player and the loss of bite in the midfield was noticeable. Villa had a few solid counter-attacking opportunities late in the going but for the final 15 minutes of the game Norwich had the bulk of the chances. Luckily Villa's defense was up to the task and despite all of their possession in the attacking third the visitors wouldn't do much to trouble Shay Given for the rest of the afternoon.
A few quick points:
- I don't think Chris Herd is anyone's idea of a perfect solution in central midfield, but with that being said he's performed quite well these past two games. With Jermaine Jenas healthy I'd expect to see less of him, but in the role of destroyer Herd has been quite good and given how concerned I was about Villa's lack of defensive presence in midfield before the season that's been a very nice thing to see.
- Speaking of Jenas, he looked good. I don't think anyone expects him to find the form that made him one of England's brighter hopes for the future earlier in his career, but if he can perform consistently at the level he showed today the decision to bring him in on loan will prove to have been a good one.
- Chris Herd's hair is one of the dumbest things I have ever seen.
- To switch gears back to my more familiar role of Captain Bringdown, good heavens are Villa's fullbacks terrible. But Hutton and Warnock made a nice defensive play or two today but they also both got beaten pretty regularly and had to be bailed out by teammates. On Norwich's second goal Hutton was completely AWOL, leaving Ireland to mark Grant Holt which was never going to end well. Warnock's crosses are atrocious and though Hutton manages to get himself into good positions from time to time he has no idea what to do with the ball once he gets there. If there's one thing about this team that concerns me more than any other, that would be it.
- I was really hoping for another great performance from Charles N'Zogbia today, similar to the level at which we saw him perform against Sunderland. We didn't get that, unfortunately. But he was still quite a bit better than he'd been for the majority of the season, and that's a good sign. Villa okays a very different style of football than Wigan and it's taken him some time to adjust, but even though he wasn't especially effective today he didn't look completely lost, something you couldn't say earlier in the season. I still think it's fair to expect more, but the urge to panic is fading.
- Shay Given is really, really adorable. At least once or twice a game he'll do something to make me laugh. I've always thought he was a very good keeper and I supported the signing but for whatever reason I found it difficult to get all that enthused when it was announced, but I've grown to love him. He's played incredibly well and he's also really endearing. That's about all you can ask for.
- Darren Bent would like you to shut the hell up about those missed sitters now. Thx.
- Norwich is really fun to watch and has the makings of a very good team. A 3-2 win at home over a newly promoted side doesn't usually feel as good as today, and that's because the Canaries played quite well. If not for Barnett's costly mental error, this is a different game. The return fixture is going to be tough.
So, a nice win for Villa and it's one they really needed. Things get tougher after the international break with a trip to White Hart Lane the next thing on the agenda. As it stands Villa are on pace for 52 points, but there's no question they'd like to be ahead of where they are given the teams they've played to this point. Still, it's important to keep in mind that the performances have been much better these past few weeks. If Villa can play like this consistently, there's a decent chance they'll be able to grab some unexpected points. No one should be getting ahead of themselves (myself most certainly included) but it's starting to look like maybe this season isn't going to be the step backward many of us feared.