x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Courageous Norwich win nothing but admiration

Valiant effort from the Canaries, but Manchester United prove too strong and too experienced.

Manchester United’s Anderson beats Norwich City’s Anthony Pilkington to score the first goal of the game.
Manchester United’s Anderson beats Norwich City’s Anthony Pilkington to score the first goal of the game.

MANCHESTER // The cliche holds that records are there to be broken. So, on this occasion, were Norwich City hearts. As Manchester United erased a 106-year statistic from the history books by winning a 19th successive home league match, they displayed the cruelty of champions.

Anderson and Danny Welbeck delivered the telling touches, yet in a match where United got the points, Norwich merited the plaudits. They frustrated the league leaders and had their opportunities to finish them off. Instead United completed a perfect year on their own patch.

Yet a pertinent statistic is that, even in conceding twice, Norwich presented the most resistance to Sir Alex Ferguson's side at Old Trafford.

"Two years ago we were in League One," manager Paul Lambert said, providing a reality check and a measure of their rapid improvement. On a ground where Arsenal's defence had been breached eight times and Chelsea's and Tottenham Hotspur's thrice apiece, Norwich's goal was essentially unthreatened until the final quarter.

Then United demonstrated that they possess an invaluable ability to turn unpromising performances into victories, as well as a squad with rare depth. Each goal involved a replacement, albeit men at either ends of their careers.

For the opener, the veteran Ryan Giggs's corner was headed on by Wayne Rooney. Anderson, lurking like a professional poacher rather than a man with six previous goals in a four-year United career, redirected the ball over the line. "You don't expect Anderson to score with a header," Ferguson said.

The Brazilian was in more familiar territory for the second, sending a probing pass in for Park Ji-sung to set up Welbeck, another replacement, for a simple finish. While Wayne Rooney subsequently clipped the bar with a deft chip, even a second goal was harsh on Norwich.

By that stage, Lambert had three strikers on the pitch, boldly pursuing a point. However, Norwich's two clearest chances, either side of Anderson's goal, went to their left winger.

They were the opportunities for Anthony Pilkington to complete a fairy-tale return. None of Norwich's assortment of outsiders have travelled quite as far or as fast as the Lancastrian.

Released by United a decade ago, he has taken the long route back to Old Trafford, reviving his career at Atherton Collieries, in English football's 10th flight.

Briefly, his roots at lower levels showed. When Wes Hoolahan attempted to thread a pass through the United defence, Antonio Valencia met it, but a lax touch enabled the ball to reach its intended target as Pilkington robbed him, advanced and angled his shot just past the post.

"An incredible chance," Ferguson said.

"Anthony Pilkington's chance might have been the turning point but that is being harsh on him," Lambert added.

Pilkington should have scored then; he could have equalised later. A shot deflected off Anderson, stranding Anders Lindegaard but bouncing back to safety off the post.

"If you don't take your chances against a team like that, it comes back to haunt you," Lambert said. "You can't keep them quiet for 90 minutes."

His side mounted a fine attempt to, though: in an uneventful first hour, there was a solitary opening of note, not least because it was so improbable.

Out of nothing, the artisan aimed to be the artist, Darren Fletcher meeting Nani's corner with a back-heeled volley. Marc Tierney, on sentry duty on the goal-line, denied the Scot the sort of goal that would have belied his image as an unflashy, unassuming worker.

Those, indeed, were the characteristics Ferguson felt his side showed. "We showed grit and determination and never gave up, which are great qualities to have," he said. "They were very difficult to break down."

Indeed they were. Individuals such as Russell Martin, impressive in the heart of defence, and Tierney, terrific at left-back, merit praise, but it was a collective effort.

Pilkington's misses were swiftly forgiven. "There's no blame attached to anybody today," Lambert said. "Those lads gave me absolutely everything."

And yet, callously, they were rewarded with nothing.