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Monday, September 24, 2012
The rapturous reception that greeted Chris Hughton as he boarded the team bus outside St James’ Park after the game left no one in any doubt about just how highly he is regarded by Newcastle United supporters.
But much as he appreciated the gesture and happily stopped to sign programmes and black and white shirts thrust in front of him, the Norwich City manager would much rather have left his former club’s home to the echo of the cheers of the travelling fans, saluting his team’s first Premier League victory of the season.
In truth, three points never really looked likely for City, though they might have had the one point Hughton felt they deserved but for a goalline clearance by Magpies defender Mike Williamson in the first half, and Andrew Surman’s failure to tuck away his side’s best chance soon after the interval.
The hosts would argue, too, that they could have coasted to victory much more comfortably had Papiss Cisse not missed a penalty in first-half stoppage time with his side already 1-0 up, clearing the target so completely that he might have been practising for that other Newcastle side, of oval ball fame.
Falcons or Magpies, it didn’t really matter, for the other birds of a feather, the Canaries, have yet to really get off the ground this season.
Once again, there were things to admire in City’s performance, notably the added creativity given them by Wes Hoolahan’s recall to the starting line-up, and a generally sound display by the back five after the early loss of former Newcastle centre-back Sebastien Bassong and the shock of falling behind in the 19th minute to Demba Ba’s third goal in seven days.
But while Ba’s cool finish proved decisive, the visitors carried little threat at the sharp end of their attack, where Steve Morison toiled away as the lone striker and Grant Holt replaced him in the final 20 minutes, adding a touch more muscle but still no goals.
Instead, City’s best openings fell to the men behind the striker, or in the last few minutes, two strikers, with Hoolahan and Robert Snodrass denied in the opening half before Surman’s miss, which came soon after the resumption.
In the opening five minutes, Norwich might have struck when Javier Garrido played a one-two with Surman on the left and his cross was met with a diving header by Hoolahan that was deflected wide off Steven Taylor.
Bassong departed in the eighth minute after pulling up with hamstring trouble as he and Leon Barnett challenged Ba for a Norwich corner.
Ex-Sunderland defender Michael Turner replaced him, to the coolest of receptions from the Geordies, and City were caught cold 11 minutes later.
It was a superb through-ball from Hatem Ben Arfa that split the City rearguard and Ba, beating the offside trap, controlled it swiftly before tucking a right-foot shot neatly past John Ruddy.
City almost levelled with a swift counter-attack on 27 minutes when Hoolahan crossed from the left and a goalbound header from Snodgrass was headed off the line by Williamson.
Williamson was at the centre of the action again right on 45 minutes as he tumbled in the box under challenge from Morison and referee Swarbrick pointed to the spot. It seemed a soft penalty but as the half entered stoppage time, there was relief for the Canaries when Cisse blazed the spot-kick high over the top.
Two minutes after the break, the Canaries could have been level as Hoolahan controlled a dropping ball superbly and played Surman clean through against Steve Harper, but the ’keeper came out smartly to block the midfielder’s effort.
Ten minutes into the half, Ruddy produced a fine save to prevent Ben Arfa making it 2-0 as he dived to his left to push the midfielder’s 25-yard drive past the post.
Both sides made changes in the closing stages, notably with the introduction of Gabriel Obertan for the hapless Cisse and Holt for Morison, but though City huffed and puffed, they seldom looked likely to blow the house down.
The game became a little ill-tempered after the introduction of Newcastle midfielder Cheick Tiote, who had a series of personal battles, fouling Bradley Johnson, getting fouled by Jonny Howson – earning him Norwich’s first yellow card of the season – then getting booked for a challenge on Turner.
Turner and Obertan also clashed as the game entered stoppage time, but the Frenchman had the last real chance as the seconds ticked away, when he was denied by the admirable Ruddy.