It was a day that all Norwich City fans had circled in their diaries, even if May seemed a lifetime away. Yet as so often happens, the footballing gods have intervened and the return of Paul Lambert to Carrow Road has been brought forward – and this is, without doubt, the story of the Capital One Cup quarter-finals.
Lambert was due to walk the gauntlet when he took his new Aston Villa side to Norwich just three games from the end of the Premier League season, but instead his return to a club where he had so much success yet left in acrimonious circumstances takes place on Tuesday in a League Cup clash that will inevitably have an extra edge than the other ties this week.
The Villans boss was deified at Norwich for the job that he did in Norfolk, where he won back-to-back promotions from League One to the Premier League before leading the club to a hugely creditable mid-table finish in the top flight.
But it all went sour when Lambert jumped ship to Villa Park in the summer and as news emerged of the former Colchester manager’s plan to sue Norwich over a contract dispute (after the Norwich board announced that they were to sue him first), the relationship between the Carrow Road faithful and their ex-boss disintegrated, probably beyond repair.
It is a desperately sad situation and one that is both unseemly and unnecessary. The nature of being a football fan means that the stance of the Norwich support is understandable, but Lambert and the club’s board should be above all of this nonsense and it reflects badly on both of them.
In typically effusive fashion, Lambert, ruthless at the best of times, has said the he is “unfazed” about the prospect of returning to his former club, saying that as a Celtic player he was subjected to much worse from Rangers fans.
That much may well be true, but the sooner the situation is resolved and both parties move on the better.
Besides, from a Norwich perspective, any bitterness should be subsiding by looking at the league table, which sees the Canaries just goal difference away from the top half thanks to a great run masterminded by the understated and astute management of Lambert’s replacement, Chris Hughton.
Villa, meanwhile, have struggled under Lambert and are just a couple of points above the drop zone as a squad full of young, inexperienced players and underachieving senior pros attempt to keep them in the top flight, and as the two meet in the quarter-final, you would suggest that on form there is only one winner.
That is reflected in the prices: Norwich are 91/100 favourites to win in 90 minutes, with the draw at 5/2 and the away win at 14/5, and even if odds-on in a match where both sides will make changes is a tad short, I see Norwich winning this.
The Canaries are flying. Since a 4-1 hammering at Chelsea, Norwich are unbeaten in ten games and at home they have been fantastic. Their only defeat in ten home fixtures this season was a dreadful one against Liverpool, but otherwise Hughton’s side have been great on their own patch.
In fact, they have won the last five at Carrow Road, and against top opposition, too: Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United have all been defeated over recent weeks in Norfolk.
And with Villa’s poor away record, I don’t see anything other than a home win.
The Villans have won just two away games inside 90 minutes since January (although they beat Manchester City at the Etihad after extra-time in the third round of this competition), a run of 18 fixtures, and if Norwich play anything like they have done recently they can give Lambert a tough return.
Norwich were the better side in a 1-1 draw at Villa Park earlier in the season even before Villa were reduced to ten men and they can be the better side on Tuesday night at 91/100.