FULL-TIME Norwich 2 Sunderland 1
A STIRRING second half comeback from Sunderland was in vain at Norwich City after the Black Cats paid the price for a dreadful opening 45 minutes.
Goals from ex-Newcastle United defender Sebastien Bassong and Anthony Pilkington handed Norwich a thoroughly deserved two-goal lead at Carrow Road as Sunderland looked utterly drained of belief or purpose.
But on the stroke of half-time, Craig Gardner’s third of the season got Sunderland back in the game and prompted a radically different display from Martin O’Neill’s men after the break.
Sunderland had the chances for an equaliser – most notably when Matt Kilgallon spurned an open goal after Gardner’s free-kick struck the post – but they couldn’t prevent a second defeat in three games.
James McClean was handed his first start in four games – replacing the injured Lee Cattermole, with Seb Larsson partnering Craig Gardner in the centre of midfield.
It was the only change by Martin O’Neill, although there were spots on the bench for Connor Wickham and James McFadden, with Louis Saha also missing out through injury.
Norwich were unchanged from the side which drew 1-1 at Southampton in midweek, with former Sunderland man Michael Turner unable to shake off a shoulder problem.
Adam Johnson tried his luck in the opening six minutes when he cut inside from the right and struck a left-footed shot which was always rising and sailed high and wide of goal.
But it was Norwich who struck the early blow two minutes later when Robert Snodgrass curled in an inswinging free-kick from the right which flicked off the outstretched arm of Carlos Cuellar and was tucked home from point-blank range by Sebastien Bassong.
It was one-way traffic in the exchanges which followed with the confidence-drained Black Cats struggling to muster any threat whatsoever.
But Sunderland drew a smart save out of Norwich stopper Mark Bunn in the 28th minute when Larsson played a short-corner to Danny Rose, lingering on the edge of the Canaries box.
No-one had picked up the on-loan Spurs left-back and he struck a low shot which Bunn gathered low to his left.
But Norwich deservedly doubled their lead in the 37th minute when Javier Garrido played the ball down the inside left channel after a sustained period of possession from the hosts.
Anthony Pilkington beat the offside trap to latch onto Garrido’s pass, jinked inside the challenge of Cuellar and curled the ball beyond Simon Mignolet into the far corner.
Moments later, Gardner tried his luck with a left-footed shot from 25 yards which arrowed into the side netting.
But a minute before the interval, Sunderland halved the deficit when Johnson jinked down the left and just managed to push it into the path of Gardner on the edge of the area.
Gardner hit a first-time left-footed shot across goal which bounced just in front of Bunn and nestled in the far corner.
HALF-TIME Norwich 2 Sunderland 1
Sunderland made a change at the break with Wickham handed just his second appearance of the season as he replaced the injured Steven Fletcher up front.
Wickham almost had a tap-in three minutes into the half after Gardner picked out Stephane Sessegnon down the right-hand channel of the penalty area.
Sessegnon pulled it back for the waiting Wickham, but just as the ex-Ipswich striker was ready to pull the trigger, he was denied by a superb last-gasp challenge from Ryan Bennett.
Moments later, Larsson’s corner from the left was flicked on at the near post by McClean, into the path of Cuellar, 12 yards out, whose shot on the turn was blocked by Bassong.
Mignolet was called into action in the 57th minute when Pilkington jinked inside from the left and hit a powerful right-footed shot across goal which required a full-length parry from the Sunderland stopper.
But Sunderland spurned a gilt-edged opportunity to equalise moments later after Matt Kilgallon blasted over the top with an open goal in front of him.
Gardner’s thunderbolt free-kick from 30 yards had cannoned back off the post, straight into the path of Kilgallon, but with Bunn committed, the centre-half’s instinctive right-foot shot soared over the top from six yards.
Norwich had another narrow escape in the 63rd minute when Johnson’s corner from the left wasn’t convincingly punched clear by Bunn.
Gardner slid in on the loose ball, 15 yards out, with a low shot towards the far post that was cleared off the line by Snodgrass.
The Black Cats carved out yet another golden opportunity moments later, when Sessegnon produced a wonderful first-touch to Danny Rose’s through-ball, which put him the wrong side of the Canaries back-line.
But with just Bunn to beat, Sessegnon’s shot lacked the same quality, a left-footed effort straight at the Norwich keeper, which he gathered at the second attempt.
Sessegnon sent an overhead kick a couple of yards wide in the 73rd minute when Norwich failed to deal with Mignolet’s punt forward and the Benin international latched onto the bouncing ball, inside the Canaries box.
Sunderland thought they had levelled four minutes later when Bunn spilled Rose’s long-range volley straight into the path of Wickham, who tucked home from a couple of yards out.
But Wickham was marginally offside when Rose’s shot came in and the linesman correctly raised his flag.
Rose again went close with five minutes to go when he unleashed a cross-come-shot from the left-hand side of the area which rocketed beyond the far post without getting a touch.
Substitute Fraizer Campbell had a chance in stoppage time when Gardner headed back Rose’s cross from the left, but the striker couldn’t get his head wrapped around the ball and it harmlessly bounced off him from six yards.
NORWICH: Bunn, Whittaker, Bassong, R Bennett, Garrido, Pilkington, Johnson, Tettey, Snodgrass (E Bennett 78), Hoolahan (Hoolahan 88), Holt. Subs not used: Rudd, Martin, Jackson, Morison, Barnett.
SUNDERLAND: Mignolet, Bardsley, Kilgallon, Cuellar, Rose, Johnson, Larsson (Vaughan 90), Gardner, McClean (Campbell 85), Sessegnon, Fletcher (Wickham 46). Subs not used: Westwood, McFadden, Colback, Bramble. Booked: Kilgallon (3), Bardsley (59)