Football can be a cruel game. Aston Villa, the club synonymous with Dean Smith, consigned his Norwich City side to relegation with a 2-0 win at Villa Park.
Steven Gerrard had potential relegation worries of his own, but those concerns have now been alleviated by a first victory in six for the Villains. Relegation was inevitable for the Canaries, it was just a matter of when rather than if.
Their relegation looked as if it was going to be put on hold when Watford ripped into the lead against Burnley at Vicarage Road. But the Clarets produced a second half fightback to clinch a 2-1 victory and seal Norwich’s fate.
Watkins went close early on when he escaped the auspices of Mathias Norman to fire over Lucas Digne’s corner at the near post. Villa got off to a rip-roaring start and Leon Bailey came to within a lick of paint away from opening the scoring when his rocket from range crashed off the crossbar.
Norwich defended strongly, despite having the worst defensive record in the Premier League, extinguishing a flurry of Villa attacks. Villa’s performance became flat and Norwich nearly punished them when Emiliano Martinez produced a spectacular right-hand save to claw Milot Rashica’s shot, which looked destined for the corner, over the crossbar.
Bailey, as seems to have been the theme of his fledgling Villa career, was forced off due to injury just before the break. His replacement Danny Ings immediately made his mark on the game. With his first touch, Ings launched the ball towards the penalty area, more in hope than anything, but Watkins controlled with his head, knocking the ball away from Brandon Williams.
Williams then slipped inexplicably, laying down the red carpet for Watkins to complete his pathway to goal. Sam Byram swooped across in desperation but his attempted block only helped Watkins’ rifled effort explode into the top corner.
The Canaries still posed an attacking threat after falling behind with Grant Hanley cushioning down Kieran Dowell’s corner into the six-yard box for Williams to head over. The second half consisted of Villa squandered multiple opportunities to kill the game off, with Watkins being the main culprit.
Ings, who has endured a frustrating debut season for Villa, looked electrifying after the final whistle. He combined effectively with Watkins on the edge of the box but Byram rescued Norwich with a crucial late block to divert the ball behind. Villa came even closer from the resulting corner with Ings glancing his header onto the post before Tim Iroegbunam, making his first Premier League start, blazed the follow-up over.
The chances continued to rain down on Tim Krul’s goal but Watkins thundered a low effort into the side netting. The crowd, deceived by the rippling of the side netting, roared in celebration. That premature roar of celebration would descend into rumbles of discontent as Norwich kept Villa at bay in the second half.
Despite showing resilience at the back, Norwich rarely threatened, with a tame shot from Pierre Lees-Melou drawing the only save that Martinez had to make after the break.
Ings filed the final nail in the coffin for Norwich’s slim survival hopes with a second in stoppage time. Buendia’s low shot had whistled wide just moments earlier, and the former Norwich winger spearheaded the next attack, unselfishly teeing up Jacob Ramsey, who was thwarted by Krul. The follow-up dropped to Ings, who bullied off his marker with his back to goal, before swivelling and dispatching an unerring finish into the far corner.
Aston Villa (4-3-3): E Martinez; M Cash, C Chambers, T Mings, L Digne; J Ramsey, T Iroegbunam (D Luiz 73), J Ramsey, J McGinn; L Bailey (D Ings 40), O Watkins, P Coutinho (E Buendia 76).
Subs not used: R Olsen, E Konsa, B Traore, A Young, M Nakamba, C Chukwuemeka.
Norwich City: T Krul; M Aarons, S Byram, G Hanley, B Williams; M Normann, P Lees-Melou (J Sargent 67), B Gilmour; M Rashica (J Rowe 78), K Dowell; T Pukki.
Subs not used: A Gunn, B Gibson, L Rupp, P Placheta, J Sorensen, J Sargent, D Giannoulis.