Jon Punt: Time to wrap Canaries’ dynamic duo in cotton wool
It’s fair to say Norwich City have dealt with their fair share of treatment room torment this term.
On so many occasions an injury (or several all at the same time) have threatened to derail the Canaries’ sparkling run of form, to curtail what now feels like a relentless charge toward the Premier League.
Even as far back as August, Grant Hanley’s quadriceps caused worry for those of a yellow and green persuasion.
At the time, his absence felt like it might have seismic consequences as City lurched from one poor result to the next.
The long term loss of a dressing room leader had many suggesting this campaign could have seen Norwich competing at the wrong end of the table.
Step forward Christoph Zimmermann. An absolute colossus for the last few months, on Saturday playing through injury to see his team over the line, he’s kept the club captain out of the side on merit for some time now.
Alongside the towering German, another understudy has emerged. Ben Godfrey may not have the panache of Timm Klose, yet his form and desire has been a more than adequate replacement. His celebration for each and every City goal shows how much this means to a young man who could only really have expected to have been on the periphery of proceedings when the season began.
Moritz Leitner and Emi Buendia became the protective boot brothers too, yet the emergence of Mario Vrancic as a real Championship force and the quick feet of Todd Cantwell saw the side continue to grind out results.
The squad’s depth has been tested to the absolute limits, and still here we stand at the top of a division which, while it may not have any stand out sides, is the most competitive it’s been for years.
Yet there are two of Daniel Farke’s charges that, at least as a collective force, are almost irreplaceable.
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The undeniable X factor in Norwich’s attacking strength has been the combination of Marco Stiepermann and Teemu Pukki, themselves perhaps deemed as back up when the campaign kicked off.
Since the two were deployed during the home fixture against promotion rivals Middlesbrough, they’ve never looked back.
Pukki at the top of the league’s goalscoring charts, Stiepermann the lynchpin in a system which revolves around being able to link play between the midfield and offensive thirds quickly.
The former Bochum man’s purposeful running and quick give and goes achieve that to devastating effect.
The duo’s telepathic understanding was in full flow for the trip to Bolton last week, showcased in both of the opening goals, the pair ably assisting each other with near perfect passes which suggested they knew where their colleague was going to be long before they arrived.
They possess qualities which their colleagues can’t replicate – more pertinently they’re perfectly in tune with the manager’s philosophy.
Pukki’s dynamism, intelligent running and inventive finishing is worlds away from the conventional Championship striker Jordan Rhodes, who is altogether more suited to an impact role, who often uses his experience to run down the clock when needed. A perfect introduction from the bench, but not someone who’ll offer the same levels Pukki has maintained this season.
Stiepermann’s physicality, sheer brute force and bustling runs as a number 10 provide the perfect foil for his partner in crime. The less robust frames of Cantwell, Buendia or Hernandez just don’t carry the same threat when playing directly behind the striker.
As much as I’ve been proved very wrong when players have stepped up from the bench already this season, the irresistible and unlikely combination of Pukki and Stiepermann, two players now at the peak of their powers, feels almost impossible to replace. Their continued fitness between now and May could well tip the scales in City’s favour. Wrap them in cotton wool Daniel, our destiny could depend on it.