Paul Lambert is arguably the greatest manager in Norwich City's history. But any sign of the trademark one-handed victory salute at Carrow Road this weekend would carry worrying ramifications for the Canaries’ Premier League survival hopes.
City's support and many of the players he bequeathed to Chris Hughton prior to his acrimonious exit for the Midlands last summer have already had to stomach one sour return to Norfolk. Lambert would not be made of flesh and blood if he had not derived an extra sense of satisfaction from plotting an emphatic 4-1 Capital One Cup win at Carrow Road in December. Lambert left the stage that night feted by the travelling support for a comprehensive cup display underpinned by a devastating late burst from Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann.
City’s suffering fans, for their part, will have basked in the humiliation when lowly Bradford dumped their former manager out of the same competition with Wembley beckoning. That is the tribal nature of football. It was evident again last weekend when Norwich's damaging Premier League defeat at Stoke was partially offset by news that filtered through of a Tottenham equaliser at Wigan.
Lambert’s past and present had reason to be thankful the Latics let two vital league points slip. Villa’s demolition of Sunderland on Monday night has altered the dynamic again in the scrap to avoid accompanying QPR and Reading back into the Championship.
Victory at Carrow Road this weekend for either club to all intents and purposes confirms another season in the land of milk and honey. That alone is the biggest chip on the table. The Lambert circus has already been indulged since his departure -- both before and after that Capital One Cup meeting and the initial reunion which took place at Villa Park in the corresponding league fixture.
City were indebted to Michael Turner's late glancing headed equaliser in a 1-1 draw after seemingly conspiring to lose a game they had controlled, even prior to Joe Bennett’s rash sending off early in the second half. There is a genuine sense of unease in these parts -- amplified by the rampant Benteke’s goalscoring exhibition to sink Sunderland -- of history about to repeat itself again.
Only Manchester's finest have prevented Villa scoring in the league since early January. Norwich City's long march to safety under Hughton has been constructed on an admirable defensive resolution that has compensated for their enduring struggles for embellishment at the sharp end of the field. Craft Villa's potency onto Norwich’s defensive obduracy and you would have a side capable of challenging for glory.
As it is, the game and maybe the season for both clubs could ultimately hinge on who emerges with valour from that key collision. Benteke has scored in the league and cup meetings against Norwich this season; City have injury concerns over first choice centre-backs Turner and Sebastien Bassong. Villa will travel buoyant and brimful of confidence. The odds are starting to pile up in Lambert’s favour.
But the City Hall of Famer built a dynasty in Norfolk constructed around the cult of the outsider. Lambert's double promotion-winning squad were by and large recruited from the lower leagues or reserve team football.
Hughton has cannily retained that spirited core in his playing revisions since. Premier League survival remains the focus, but rest assured those Lambert left behind will like nothing better than to upset the man who gave them a shot at the big time. He would expect nothing less.