Everyone inside Carrow Road waited patiently for the Manchester United onslaught but it never materialised. We have become so accustomed to seeing United fight back from the brink that it felt inevitable they would break Norwich's hearts with yet another act of escapology. Not this time. For once, there was no late comeback, no victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, no chance to leave everyone marvelling at their powers of recovery. Instead an insipid display saw United lose for the third time this season and relinquish their lead at the top of the table to Manchester City.
The painful truth that Sir Alex Ferguson must confront is that opponents are not intimidated by United any more. This is not a great United side by any stretch of the imagination. Norwich, who came into this game with their belief raised by a run of five matches unbeaten, took inspiration from the way Aston Villa's robustness unnerved United last Saturday and fully merited the victory given to them by Anthony Pilkington's header in the 60th minute. Pilkington, released by United as a youngster, was the best player on the pitch and would surely have caught the eye of the watching England manager, Roy Hodgson.
Indeed, Hodgson could not have failed to have been impressed by Norwich's performance. There were heroes everywhere in yellow and green, from the superb John Ruddy in goal, to the solid pairing of Sébastien Bassong and Michael Turner in defence and the tireless Grant Holt in attack. Chris Hughton endured a shaky start to life at Carrow Road after taking over from Paul Lambert in the summer but his influence is being felt now. There is a resilience to this Norwich team that their rivals must envy.
United are all too aware of it. Sorely missing the guile and invention of the injured Wayne Rooney alongside Robin van Persie, they kept the ball for long spells but it was what Arsène Wenger might term sterile domination as Norwich largely contained them to half-chances. Ferguson refused to blame the absence of Rooney, though. "You always miss your key players but we had plenty of good players on the pitch," he said.
With Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs offering minimal drive in midfield and Javier Hernández anonymous up front, there was a glaring lack of inspiration going forward and when Ruddy was called into action he excelled. It looked like he would be in for a busy afternoon when he had to save from Van Persie from the edge of the area in the third minute and there was also a brilliant stop from the miserably ineffective Ashley Young at the end of the first half, but for long periods the Norwich goalkeeper was underemployed. His side could have led at the break if Holt had been more alert to crosses from Javier Garrido and Robert Snodgrass. Pilkington also threatened, firing inches wide after a lightning counterattack.
A goal was on the cards and the most damning assessment that can be made of United's display is that when it arrived, no one was surprised. Garrido, always willing to attack from left-back, crossed and Pilkington ran in front of Chris Smalling to direct an unstoppable header past Anders Lindegaard and into the top-left corner.
"It was an excellent goal," Hughton said. "I don't think the goalkeeper could do anything about it."
Naturally Norwich, eager to protect their lead, retreated. The response was predictable. An equaliser looked certain when Danny Welbeck, on as a substitute, saw his header deflect off the unwitting Bassong but it dropped agonisingly wide. Yet Norwich were hardly defending for their lives and they should have made sure of the points when Jonny Howson dragged his shot wide when clean through in the last minute.
How they would have regretted that miss if Ruddy had not leapt through the air to prevent Bassong scoring an own goal, before denying Paul Scholes.
Yet anything but a Norwich win would have been a gross injustice, because United were feeble. "Over 90 minutes we deserved what we got," Hughton said. "We defended well as a unit. Over the course of the game I thought we were magnificent."
Ferguson knew his side had been well beaten. "The players are used to making comebacks," he said. "Particularly in the last minutes of matches, we're always a threat. They [Norwich] defended really well and the goalkeeper's made two or three really good saves at vital moments."
For once, United deserved nothing and that is what they got. Norwich deserved everything.