Norwich strengthened their hopes of Premier League survival with a 2-0 defeat of struggling Aston Villa.
Their fifth league victory of the season, following goals from Jonny Howson and Dieumerci Mbokani, leaves them with a total of 20 points from their first 19 games, halfway to the tally usually required to avoid relegation.
Villa remain bottom of the table, with many fearing they are unlikely to leave it before the season concludes. Their only chance of survival appeared to be wasted when Remi Garde failed to inspire an instant improvement in results, and now the question surrounds how quickly their relegation will be confirmed.
It was a fixture which presented the ideal examination of each team. Relegation already looks an inevitability for Villa, but if they are to avoid their season becoming an even greater embarrassment they swiftly need to take points from those also struggling.
As they often have since Garde’s appointment as manager, Villa, featuring four changes including the return of captain Micah Richards, began encouragingly.
Leandro Bacuna tested Norwich goalkeeper Declan Rudd with a powerful shot from 25 yards in only the third minute, and Rudd saved again from Jordan Ayew’s close-range header soon after, but as soon as they went behind the depth of their problems again surfaced.
A failure to win in the Premier League since the opening day of the season has robbed Villa of their confidence, and often of any belief they are capable of victory when they do not take an early lead.
Norwich were the more frustrated in the 24th minute, but when Villa’s deep defensive line left Nathan Redmond with little option but to chip an optimistic cross towards Mbokani, Bacuna’s header fell to Howson, who impressively struck first time beyond Villa’s Brad Guzan and into the back of the net.
Victory could so easily have been secured just 11 minutes into the second half. In space on the left wing, Redmond sent a routine shot at Guzan which the goalkeeper spilled to Howson. Despite space inside the area, the midfielder then placed the rebound just wide of the right post, and in doing so encouraged Villa.
With the energy provided by Ayew and substitute Adama Traore, the visitors began to stretch Norwich who were perhaps only saved by Villa’s lack of confidence and a focal point.
A superior team would unquestionably have punished Norwich’s uncertainty, but despite an abundance of possession in the final third a goal simply looked beyond the visitors.
Norwich similarly did not look like scoring, but they were playing the division’s worst team, so that they again did perhaps should not have been a surprise.
They were already playing for the final whistle when, in the 87th minute, Wes Hoolahan took possession from Redmond, crossed towards Mbokani, and watched the powerful striker head, under little pressure, beyond Guzan.
It was the minimum Alex Neil would have expected from his team. For Villa, the problem is they never seemed to expect any different.