Aston Villa 4 - 2 Norwich City
Daniel Farke sparked some unrest on Twitter from the Canary Nation by making four changes to the side that beat QPR in midweek.
Ivo Pinto, James Maddison, Wes Hoolahan and Nelson Oliveira were all rested with Pinto unable to even make the bench. Russell Martin, Steven Naismith, Cameron Jerome and Marco Stiepermann, making his first start for the club, were the replacements.
The dropping of Nelson Oliveira caused the most uproar on social media with the moaners out in force but with City playing their fifth game in less than two weeks, the squad was always going to need a few changes. I was concerned when I saw Maddison and Oliveira on the bench (I had assumed Wes wouldn`t start) and that concern proved to be well placed.
Within 60 seconds of kick off, Christoph Zimmermann got himself in a tangle and almost gifted a debut goal to youngster Keinan Davis only for Angus Gunn to race off his line and snuff out the danger.
It was an open start to the game with chances for both sides and neither defence looking exactly solid.
Another great chance fell to Davis on 15 minutes but again, Angus Gunn was equal to it, making a big save to keep the scores level.
On 22 minutes, Conor Hourihane was given the ball by the lively Davis in the box and scored low into the bottom left corner of Angus Gunn`s goal. It was a typically poor piece of Norwich defending and things could`ve been worse only a minute or so later when Davis crashed a dipping volley off the cross bar.
Of course, the early goal gave the home crowd just the boost they needed as Villa made sure that they shut up shop whenever Norwich had the ball. City comfortably kept possession for periods after as they tried to pull the Villa players out of possession, looking for an opening. However, it was tough going and City were second best for much of the first half.
Yet again, as I noticed against Sunderland and QPR, the opposition mounted plenty of attacks down City`s left hand side as James Husband was again targeted and left without a lot of cover at times by Josh Murphy.
City didn`t really open up the Villa defence until 38 minutes in, when Naismith moved the ball swiftly to Jerome and he beat the keeper to it but the ball was cleared away before Stiepermann could score with the Villa net unguarded.
However, despite all that, Villa got the second goal from the left when Davis passed to Henri Lansbury (remember him) who played it to the excellent Andre Green who fired the ball into the top corner and past Gunn.
At 2-0, Norwich were on the ropes and looking down the barrel of a real beating as the Villains pushed for a third and surely killer blow before half time.
Villa`s attacks came with pace and in numbers in stark contrast to City`s forward efforts. Again, when City did have the ball, the home side put nine or ten men behind the ball and made it very difficult to break them down - just like Sunderland did. Cameron Jerome looked isolated and unable to do a lot, which put the decision to bench Nelson Oliveira into sharp focus. The fact was though that City were the masters of their own downfall as they gave the ball away too often and too easily. Had it not been for Angus Gunn, the deficit could`ve been a lot worse come the break.
Rather surprisingly, there were no changes at half time, with the starting XI being given the chance to put things right by Daniel Farke.
The second half initially didn`t see much in the way of anything different as Villa continued to press forward and Norwich looked like they were about to concede again at any moment. City`s best work came on the counter and an early run from Murphy then saw Naismith hit the side netting in the Canaries` best move of the game up to that point. Norwich continued to have some possession but against ten men behind the ball it came to nothing before another slack pass put Villa back on the counter. It was a familiar pattern that played out time and again, just as it did against Sunderland.
It was depressing stuff until the hour mark when Josh Murphy suddenly raced on to a Harrison Reed ball over the top. He had Alan Hutton on toast and got one on one with Sam Johnstone and fired past him to make it 2-1. Murphy had been City`s best attacking player by some distance and had already shown he had the beating of Hutton a few times.
The home crowd immediately started to wilt and look very nervous and Steve Bruce responded when he immediately replaced Hutton with James Bree. Hutton was also on a yellow card and that call was an easy one to make.
Murphy continued to threaten and ran at the Villa defence whenever he got the chance with the home defenders always backing off him. Pace kills.
A free kick on halfway was then played to Hourihane who fired a shot goal wards that got a wicked deflection and looped away from Gunn to restore Villa`s two goal advantage - just as City were looking as though they might get something from the game too.
It was a real kick in the teeth and the home crowd immediately sprang back into life.
With 18 minutes to go, Farke finally called for Oliveira and Hoolahan who replaced Jerome and Naismith. It felt like it was too little, too late but Villa had got a little lucky when they scored their third with Norwich in the ascendency.
However, wouldn`t you just know it, on 80 minutes a Josh Murphy cross was fired home by Oliveira, who peeled off his marker and underlined how ridiculous a decision it was to leave him out of the starting line up as he made the score 3-2.
Everything was now coming through Murphy, who had scored one and assisted one as he produced a man of the match performance. The Villa fans again looked uneasy as their team tried to keep a resurgent (for the second time) Norwich at bay.
Just as City looked like they might get something from the game, Aston Villa sealed the points as Conor Hourihane claimed his hat trick with another long range shot. There was more than a suspicion of hand ball in the build up from Elmohamady who then played the ball to Hourihane to score. The hand ball was clear and obvious and surely must`ve been seen by the referee and the linesman but for whatever reason, the ref didn`t give it.
There were plenty of positives in the second half, like Josh Murphy and another goal for Oliveira but the damage was done by slack defending and passing in the first half, gifting opportunities to Villa.
The whole Norwich back line looked shaky throughout and unless these lads improve quickly, this season might resemble the last one in terms of defensive errors but with the ability to score freely at the other end.
Wildschut for Husband was the final change in the aftermath of the fourth goal but the game was effectively up at this point, although there was still time for Elmohamady to strike the bar late on - it really should`ve been 5-2.