It was not the homecoming that Norwich City boss Dean Smith would’ve dreamed of. Seven months after his sacking by Aston Villa, the boyhood Villain, embraced as a hero by all four corners of Villa Park, left his former home as a relegated manager.
Norwich knew the permutations heading to the West Midlands but hoped, rather than expected, to prolong the inevitable. In the end everything conspired against them. Not only did they fail to register a result themselves, but Burnley staged a late comeback against Watford at Vicarage Road to consign the Canaries to a record sixth relegation.
Villa had acute relegation fears of their own with a run of five games without a victory leaving them just eight points above the relegation zone. Steven Gerrard was determined to arrest their declining form and they produced a rip-roaring start to ease the anxiety that had been built up at Villa Park over the preceding games.
The hosts launched multiple assaults down the left with Lucas Digne, a surprise inclusion after his remarkable recovery from a broken collarbone just three weeks ago, combined threateningly with Philippe Coutinho.
Coutinho was invariably at the heart of the action and looked as if he had a point to prove with his future at Villa yet to be decided. The Brazilian has failed to register a goal or an assist in his last six games, but he showed more than just flashes of his undisputed brilliance in an auspicious display.
Another player with pedigree who is yet to convince is Jamaica international Leon Bailey. His signing from Bayer Leverkusen last summer generated excitement across the fanbase but injuries have thus far hampered his progress in England.
It was to be the case once again after he pulled up following a challenge from Brandon Williams. He initially fought on and came to within a lick of paint away from rippling the net when Tim Krul masterfully flicked his goal bound effort onto the crossbar.
Villa’s energetic start dissipated somewhat but Norwich came close when Emi Martinez was required to be at full stretch to claw Milot Rashica’s testing strike behind. Pierre Lees-Melou looked as if he had escorted the ball off the pitch rather than had a genuine attempt at goal when he squandered a goal chance which was symptomatic of Norwich’s season.
Goals have been an issue for Norwich, and with Teemu Pukki, the man with 10 of their 22 goals in the Premier League, being left isolated, Norwich’s attacking threat was futile. Their woes in front of goal have also been coupled with inability to keep the ball out of their net at the other end too.
The Canaries became the first side in history to leak 70 goals in three different Premier League seasons. It was clear to see why. Danny Ings, who replaced Bailey, after he succumbed to his earlier knock, made an immediate impression.
His sweeping diagonal ball was headed down by Ollie Watkins. A slip from Williams laid down the red carpet for Watkins to fire for goal, and despite Sam Byram’s best efforts, his last-ditch attempt at a block only helped lift the ball over Krul and into the top corner.
Norwich, looking to redeem themselves from the bale of tears, almost produced an immediate response. Grant Hanley cushioned Kieran Dowell’s floated free-kick into the danger area, only for Williams to scoop his header over the crossbar.
The visitors looked defeated after the break, almost acceptant of their fate, despite Burnley still trailing at Watford at Vicarage Road. Lees-Melou drew a comfortable save from Martinez in Norwich’s only notable chance of the second period, but it was Villa that did most of the pressing.
Ings, putting his regressive season at Villa behind him, produced his finest performance alongside Watkins, since his summer switch from Southampton. The pair combined beautifully on the edge of the box with Watkins scooping the ball into the path of Ings only for Byram to divert his finish behind.
The resulting corner was met by a glancing header from Ings which crashed against the crossbar as Villa struggled to kill the game off. But as news filtered through of Burnley’s comeback victory over Watford, Villa smelt blood, and mercilessly compounded Norwich’s misery.
Emi Buendia, Norwich’s player of the year last season, was brought on from the bench to terrorise his former side in the dying stages. He slotted a low shot narrowly wide before making a telling contribution for Villa’s second goal of the afternoon in stoppage time.
Jacob Ramsey was foiled by Krul, but Buendia plucked the ball out of the air for Ings to dispatch his finish beyond the reach of Krul. Smith gave Norwich a slither of hope, but was unable to halt a seemingly irreversible trend as the Canaries prepare for yet another season in the Championship.
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.