STOKE CITY slipped to their first home defeat of the campaign in front of the live television cameras on Sunday afternoon as Jonny Howson’s first-half strike secured Norwich all three points at the Britannia Stadium.
The midfielder’s wonderfully taken effort ensured the visitors of their first away victory of the season, and moved them on to seven points – level with the Potters having each played six games.
Mark Hughes, who reverted back to the same eleven that started against Arsenal seven days ago, could have no complaints about the result as his side failed to maintain the levels of performance that had served them so well in recent weeks.
The contrasting early season fortunes of both side’s certainly wasn’t evident during the initial proceedings, as Norwich looked far the brighter team and undoubtedly the more likely to break the deadlock.
Stoke, who kicked the game off three points and five places better off than the Canaries, struggled to gain any real momentum and could count them selves fortunate not to have been at least one goal adrift by the time the clock ticked past the 15-minute mark.
Dutch midfielder Leroy Fer went agonisingly close to connecting to a dangerous ball across the 6-yard box from Robert Snodgrass, before Ryan Bennett met an equally as teasing centre and fired it goalwards, only for the crossbar to come to the Potters’ rescue.
Chris Hughton’s side continued in the ascendency, but in truth rarely threatened to breach the goal of Begovic, who like his custodian at the other end of the pitch, watched the game fizzle out in the middle of the pitch.
That was until a moment of brilliance from summer acquisition Marko Arnautovic very nearly gave the hosts an undeserved victory, as his rasping effort from 25-yards dipped centimetres over the bar after Charlie Adam cleverly fed him in.
The former Werder Bremen man’s strike lifted the rather lethargic atmosphere at the stadium, albeit briefly, as Howson stunned the majority of supporters inside the ground into silence with a thumping effort from outside the penalty box ten minutes before the break.
The goal was no more than Norwich deserved in all fairness as Hughes’ side looked a million miles away from the one that gave title-favourites Manchester City an almighty scare last time out in the Potteries.
Having watched his side lacking any real cutting edge and conviction, you could sense Hughes’ desperation for the half-time whistle to blow without succumbing to any further damage.
As was the case against Crystal Palace last month, the Welshman needed to reinvigorate his struggling side and mastermind another second half comeback if he was to lead the Potters to a third victory of the campaign thus far.
That led to him making a double change prior to the start of the second-half with both Stephen Ireland and Jermaine Pennant being thrust into action, at the expense of the unusually quiet Adam and Walters.
Both players made a significant impact as the hosts looked far livelier start to the half, with Ireland’s creativity and Pennant’s willingness to cut inside of his man causing the visitors a large number of problems.
That said, it was all still fairly routine for Norwich’s backline as they had all of the answers for any questions posed of them by the hosts.
A succession of corners did peg the visitors back for a period of time, whilst a neat bit of trickery from Jones forged a sight at goal, although he was unable to make full contact with the ball and his strike trickled into the arms of England ‘keeper John Ruddy.
At the other end the impressively named Ricky Van Wolfswinkel curled an effort over the bar from the edge of the penalty area, whilst Fer slammed an effort wide of goal from a similar distance following hesitancy amongst the Potters backline.
Begovic, who looks to be on course for a spot at next summers World Cup Final’s in Brazil, produced a stunning save to deny Snodgrass from 20-yards, and in the process keep alive Stoke’s faint hopes of earning themselves something from the game.
Peter Crouch, who netted in the midweek victory at Prenton Park, was introduced from the bench as Hughes through one last roll of the dice; but it failed to deliver the rewards he would have been hoping for as Norwich comfortably held on to their narrow advantage.