It took 82 seconds for City to shake off the rumours that they might be about to succumb to consecutive defeats for the first time in the league this season, following a shock loss at Sunderland on Boxing Day. Ahead of this game all the news about City had been dreary: trailing the league leaders, Manchester United, by seven points, the defending champions were statistically inferior to their performances at the same stage last season in almost every way, worse still they had also been unceremoniously dumped out of Europe.
But a rip-roaring four minutes into the match and there was a distinct change in mood, as Roberto Mancini's much-maligned men shot into the lead with two goals. Edin Dzeko was the executor of both, but with Sergio Agüero, David Silva and the rest of the team firing on all cylinders, City instantly appeared truly unstoppable.
From that vantage point it was hard to see how Norwich might avoid the kind of humbling 5-1 and 6-1 batterings they had endured at the hands of City last season. But, impressively, Chris Hughton's side were able to maintain their composure, keep a good amount of possession, and calmly strike back through Anthony Pilkington's free-kick after Robert Snodgrass was brought down on the edge of the area by Vincent Kompany. At 2-1, it was game on.
City, though, were not about to lie down to yet another lower half of the table side, and instead kept up the pressure: a lovely run from Agüero almost forcing Javier Garrido into an own goal as the goalkeeper Mark Bunn tipped the ball over the crossbar with his fingertips – an incident Mancini later complained about as yet another example of incompetent refereeing – before Yaya Touré put in an effort that flew inches wide of the post.
As the match raced towards half-time, the narrative took an ugly turn – Sébastien Bassong's tackle on Samir Nasri prompting the France international to leap to his feet and square up to the Norwich defender. Tempers flaring, head grinding against head, both players seemed equally at fault until Nasri added in the slightest of butts and the referee, Mike Jones, held up a red card to send him off – the City midfielder protesting all the way.
That decision sparked Mancini's ire and he later protested at length. "If you want to send off someone I think both [should go], but not only Samir, it was not good this decision," he said. "He [Jones] said [Nasri] touched [Bassong's] head but the other player did the same. You want to send him off, both players, fine I agree. If you send for [only] this … the referee was there, he saw everything."
Mancini added: "Rules should be the same for everyone, not always different rules. I hate this, in football I always hate this. Two rules for different teams, or for different players, I can't accept this in football.
"Also I don't understand, when [Javier] Garrido played the ball back to the keeper [Mark Bunn], the keeper saved – why the referee didn't give the free-kick? Why? Maybe they changed the rules in the last two three months. I don't know, I saw incredible things in the last month."
Asked if he will appeal against the Nasri decision, Mancini replied: "We will appeal for sure." Do City stand a chance of winning that appeal? "I don't know. If they are correct, yes."
The second half brought another spell of thrilling action as City twice more surged ahead – first through Agüero profiting from a Bassong mistake five minutes into the second half, then Dzeko forcing Bunn to turn the ball against his own post and into the back of the net. Undeterred, Norwich responded superbly to each goal, on both occasions their captain, Russell Martin, hitting back to close the gap and keep the league champions on a short rein.
As the minutes ticked down and Norwich searched for an equaliser, a series of leisurely substitutions from the City camp gave rise to agonised howls from the home fans, desperate to use every last one of their match minutes to the full. Sadly for Hughton's men it was not to be, Norwich enduring a third consecutive defeat after an unbeaten run of five.
Mancini extolled his players' efforts. "I am delighted with the result, I am delighted with the performance," he said. "The first 25 minutes we played fantastic football, afterwards it became more difficult."
Forced to play the second half without Nasri, the City manager praised the work-rate of his players. "It's not easy," the Italian said, reminding observers that this was the second occasion this season in which his side had pulled off a victory with 10 men. "We won two games, this and another game against West Bromwich Albion. We played 60 minutes [then] with 10 players, I think we are a strong team."
Manchester United remain seven points clear of the league champions after their 2-0 home victory against West Brom, but Mancini insisted he was not concerned. "In this moment they are better than us because they are top but for us it's not important to look at the table now. We need to work, win, and maybe in February we look again."
Hughton was disappointed to concede two quick goals. "You can't be 2-0 down so early in the game and expect not to have a real tough game. I thought we showed great character, certainly at 4-3 it seemed like one of those games that might end up going our way."
Hughton also questioned why the referee did not react to a Kompany foul in a move that set up City's second goal, before agreeing with Mancini's assessment of Nasri's red card. "There was certainly a coming together of heads and a bit of movement from Nasri, whether that was enough for a sending off, the referee obviously felt that there was." Should Bassong have received equal treatment? "Although there was a coming together there wasn't any movement from Seb," he replied. "Was it a bit harsh? Probably, yes."