A tremendous, occasionally inspiring, always comfortable victory over a side who are no slouches in the Championship and who have something of a hold on opponents who visit their premises in midweek. Ipswich last lost at home in an evening game when Trevor Whymark was still up front, or something like that, and City came away with the points with such aplomb that we wondered how such a record had ever existed.
Steve Bruce made nine changes, not ten, with Curtis Davies and David Meyler retained from the FA Cup stalemate at Arsenal. That Meyler stayed in was a mild surprise (though by no means an unwelcome one); that Isaac Hayden didn’t even make the bench was a bigger surprise. Beyond that, the usual suspects were back and the formation reverted to a 4-4-2.
The first half was mainly the cagey “getting to know you” stuff but City were quite evidently the better team, spraying the ball around with sheen and confidence, while both Mohamed Diamé and Abel Hernàndez seemed full of enthusiasm in their one-on, one-off partnership, and the Uruguayan caused ample problems around Ipswich’s offside trap.
City won a free kick when defender Tommy Smith made a horlicks of clearing a simple ball and was robbed by Hernàndez in doing so, forcing himself into a foul. Robert Snodgrass, booed comically all night for his Norwich connections, whisked the free kick round the wall and forced Bartosz Bialkowski into a smart fingertip save.
Hernàndez then blootered one over the crossbar before Ipswich exercised a little more influence on the game. Meyler had to clear a Christophe Berra header away from in front of goal, then Daryl Murphy hit the post with a header which ricocheted right across the goal, nobody able to get to it.
It was level in all ways at the break, but City had looked more dangerous during their spells of possession. The early stages of the second half proved the momentum was truly theirs.
Three minutes had elapsed when Andy Robertson, whose all-round abilities as a full back have come on a bundle of late, cut through from the left to the edge of the box and fed Diamé, whose exquisitely timed run was matched by a terrific, instinctive, delicate finish. The modern phrase for such a piece of skill is a “dink”. It was much more than that.
For the next 20 minutes, it was all City. The hosts were terrified of Diamé, and indeed the way he took them to task was terrifying. We have the best player in the Championship here, undoubtedly. If he cared all the time, if he was on song more often, if… well, at the moment he’s unplayable. And the travelling City contingent in Suffolk were enchanted by him.
Diamé battered another one just over shortly afterwards, then Meyler was put through after a world-class passing move, only for the final shot to be blocked by the lunge of Smith. Sam Clucas then had a shot saved by Bialkowski, with Jake Livermore’s follow-up hitting the outside of the post.
A Snodgrass free kick met the unmarked head of Davies, who somehow managed to steer the chance right across goal. Ipswich, possibly realising that at 1-0 down they were being let off the hook a tad, changed their outlook and gave City something of a bombardment in the last ten minutes, by which time Steve Bruce had taken off both Diamé and Hernàndez. Friday was on his mind.
Barring one free header from an injury time corner which went mercifully wide, City coped in comfort, and the final whistle was greeted with justifiable glee. Another three in the bag, and with all our rivals winning too, a crucial haul at that. Played, City.
Very simply, being good, confident and settled. Ipswich are no mugs and many were wondering if a point would be regarded as a satisfactory share of the spoils, but once the unplayable Diamé had put City ahead, we looked unequivocally like the side topping the table. Plenty of his colleagues backed him up admirably, though – Michael Dawson was wonderful at the back, Robertson had a super game as a byline to byline full back, and it was good to see Meyler so influential again.
Another full return from a tough away game, a proper test chalked off as the run-in approaches and another big one, at home, in a Yorkshire derby, to come on Friday night. A win like this will just up the white-hot levels of atmosphere against Sheffield Wednesday even further.