Paddy Davitt verdict: Warm words and cold reality for Norwich City
PUBLISHED: 13:30 17 February 2019 | UPDATED: 14:06 18 February 2019
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You know you are doing something special when the manager of Norwich City’s vanquished opponents, Bolton Wanderers, lavishes praise on the Canaries.
Phil Parkinson admitted Bolton Wanderers could and should have made life far harder for Daniel Farke’s men in a procession of a football match.
That was a given. The Whites were seemingly incapable or unwilling to pick up Preston’s mantle and press ferociously high to probe for any residual signs of self-doubt, after a rare setback for the Canaries.
Parkinson may have been seeking to deflect from his own side’s shortcomings. But his warm words were deserved.
City’s midfielders roamed with apparent impunity, as Bolton retreated en masse in front of Remi Matthews. But that policy was doomed to failure with the movement, guile and trickery of Teemu Pukki and Marco Stiepermann to ruthlessly expose the flaws in Bolton’s limited approach.
Tom Trybull and Kenny McLean will never have a more comfortable ride.
Copious amounts of time and space brought City’s young wide players firmly into the mix to create the platform for Pukki and Stiepermann to gorge.
What unfolded was a joyous exhibition of attacking verve and clinical intent that prompted Parkinson to draw parallels with last season’s Championship good things, Wolves, and label City’s incisiveness at the top end ‘Premier League’ grade.
That remains the objective and the huge opportunity now in front of Farke’s squad. A testing night against Alex Neil’s tenacious Preston just days after the emotional and physical tumult of an East Anglian derby looked a stiff assignment.
There is no need to rake over the embers of that defeat but City still had plenty of chances and possession at Deepdale to keep the show on the road.
It was hauled firmly back on track at sorry Bolton’s expense.
There was another farcical penalty episode which, in the final analysis, occupied a footnote when Matthews’ denied McLean; although Farke’s post-match point about the impact on Norwich’s goal difference from six spot kick failures is a salient one.
But the peak had already been scaled by the time Mark Beevers’ felled Pukki inside the home penalty area.
Perhaps of far greater significance in the final quarter of a one-sided affair was the long-awaited return to action of Moritz Leitner.
So much of Norwich’s early season promise was woven around Leitner’s composed, calming influence in the centre of the park.
Pukki or for that matter Stiepermann and Emi Buendia may have moved front of house, since his spell on the sidelines with an ankle injury, but there can be no dispute just how crucial a component Leitner’s brand of midfield craft is to Farke’s philosophy.
With injured duo Mario Vrancic and Alex Tettey set to return in the coming games the battle for starting spots can surely only drive City to even greater heights.
Grant Hanley had a late cameo at Bolton in the closing stages, while Timm Klose was another experienced operator making a welcome return to the matchday mix.
The sense City have the wind in their sails is palpable.
But given their struggles in another part of the north-west a few days earlier, and wins elsewhere for some of their promotion rivals, embracing any growing sense of inevitability should be resisted.
Sheffield United stayed firmly in the Canaries’ slipstream and West Brom edged a Midlands’ derby at Aston Villa while Leeds kicked their heels on a blank weekend.
Since the turn of the year each latest round of Championship results induces feelings of nausea and exhilaration in equal measure.
Or perhaps frustration and finger pointing if you are a former manager returning to a club where you were once worshipped in charge of your doomed local rivals.
Norwich have emerged from a gruelling league run top of the pile. That is an outstanding testament to the quality and the character moulded under Farke’s astute guidance.
Those who may have doubted their staying power, after moving into striking distance before Christmas, now have their answer.
The route to the top flight looks tantalisingly in focus. But there can be no let up.
No naïve delusions other Championship clubs standing between Norwich and the big prize will be as compliant as Bolton Wanderers. The hardest yards lie ahead.