GABRIEL Agbonlahor struck twice in the second-half to condemn Norwich City to a 2-1 defeat in their Premier League meeting against Aston Villa on Saturday afternoon.
The winger scored either side of a Grant Holt penalty at Carrow Road to earn Paul Lambert’s team a crucial win in the battle for survival.
It’s a result that leaves the Canaries only three points clear of the relegation place with two games to go against West Bromwich Albion and Manchester City.
The two sides were evenly matched throughout but it was Agbonlahor and not the much talked-about Christian Benteke who made the difference in this match.
Norwich made three changes from last weekend’s defeat at Stoke City, with Anthony Pilkington making his first start since March at the expense of Kei Kamara, Wes Hoolahan in for Alex Tettey and Javier Garrido replacing Steven Whittaker at left-back.
Unsurprisingly, Villa kept faith with the same eleven that thrashed Sunderland 6-1 on Monday night, with 18-goal Benteke leading the line.
Carrow Road was rocking once more, with the atmosphere leading up to kick-off even more frenetic than the last home game against Reading, and City fed off the noise in the early stages.
Villa soon settled, but after Agbonlahor had a well-hit shot blocked by Sebastien Bassong, City had a tame shout for a penalty when Matthew Lowton appeared to block Pilkington’s cross with his arm.
Andreas Weimann tested Bunn with a low drive on 14 minutes before Ryan Bennett nodded a Robert Snodgrass delivery at Brad Guzan, but the game ebbed and flowed without either side having a sustained period of pressure.
City earned a set-piece opportunity on 33 minutes when Joe Bennett’s hauled back Snodgrass on the edge of the box, and although the Scotsman’s initial shot was blocked by the wall, his second effort forced a decent stop from Guzan.
Pilkington and Garrido combined well down the left to provide a chance for Grant Holt, but he may have been put off by Hoolahan going to meet the ball in front of him and his header was well off target.
Norwich were lucky in the final minute of the half, though, as Villa pressed and Agbonlahor’s cross deflected off Garrido, over Mark Bunn but off the top of the crossbar.
HALF-TIME: Norwich City 0-0 Aston Villa
They were lucky immediately after the break too – as against Stoke City, the defence was asleep from the restart and Benteke sneaked between Ryan Bennett and Bassong, but Bunn had an easier save than he was probably anticipating down to his left side.
It was a fortunate escape for Hughton’s side, but they rallied and Holt skewed a shot over a few minutes later after good work from Snodgrass and Jonny Howson.
However, the visitors took the lead from nowhere on 55 minutes – winger Agbonlahor, who had proved tricky all afternoon, was allowed far too much space in the City half before he unleashed a low shot that nestled right in the corner.
The visiting supporters were delirious, and Norwich compounded their own disappointment when Russell Martin and Hoolahan got in each other’s way when free to meet a Garrido cross at the back post, with the latter’s header falling well wide.
The game was stretched and what followed was a golden opportunity up the other end – Agbonlahor’s pace got him away from Howson on the left, and his cross was perfect but Weimann somehow conspired to loft his shot over the bar when it looked easier to score.
Agbonlahor was at the centre of the action again on 66 minutes as he dragged a shot wide after a one-two with Benteke, before the latter got away luckily after an altercation with Bassong.
The Belgian striker appeared to grab the City defender by the throat and was fortunate to get away with just a booking.
The drama continued to unfold and Norwich grabbed the equaliser on 72 minutes – Snodgrass broke down the right into the box and was upended by Joe Bennett, with referee Kevin Friend pointing to the spot.
Grant Holt, who had missed City’s only previous penalty this season against Southampton, stepped up and confidently stroked the ball in the opposite direction to Guzan’s dive and levelled.
As news of Wigan taking the lead at West Bromwich Albion filtered through, both sides knew a victory would be absolutely priceless and Holt drove into the side-netting as the clock ticked down.
It was Villa who scored the crucial goal though in a sickening blow for the Canaries – Ashley Westwood picked out the run of Agbonlahor, whose pace saw him away from City’s defence and he finished clinically once more.
In stoppage time, Holt had a header that flew agonisingly wide of the post but Villa held on.
FULL-TIME: Norwich City 1-2 Aston Villa.
GOALS: Norwich City – Grant Holt (74 pen). Aston Villa – Gabriel Agbonlahor (55, 89)
NORWICH CITY: Bunn; R Martin, Bassong, R Bennett, Garrido (Jackson 90); Snodgrass (E Bennett 85), Johnson, Howson, Pilkington; Hoolahan (Kamara 71); Holt (c). Subs not used: Camp (GK), Whittaker, Jackson, Barnett, Tettey.
ASTON VILLA: Guzan; Lowton (Lichaj 27), Vlaar (c), Baker, J Bennett; Sylla (Holman 78), Westwood, Delph; Agbonlahor, Benteke, Weimann. Subs not used: Given (GK), Bent, N’Zogbia, Bowery, Bannan.