David Freezer: Clear signs of progress for Canaries despite nervy finish against Reading
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Finally, some clear progress. Those were the thoughts of many relieved City fans as they darted from Carrow Road towards the nearest warm place at full-time following Saturday's 3-2 home win over Reading.
It wasn’t brilliant, it wasn’t as comfortable as it should have been and it was against a team in genuine relegation trouble – but it was a win. After two consecutive 0-0 home draws, a 3-2 victory over Reading felt much more satisfying than it should have done.
Mario Vrancic had spoken about his determination to aid Daniel Farke’s midfield injury woes ahead of the game and did just that, with his most impressive outing yet in a Norwich shirt.
Kicked off with a first league goal in just the 14th minute, after Grant Hanley had flicked on a James Maddison corner, the 28-year-old summer signing sprayed the ball about with the aplomb you would expect of a man who was playing in the Bundesliga last season.
Described as ‘outstanding’ by Farke afterwards, Vrancic set the rhythm and tempo that was needed in the absence of Tom Trybull or Moritz Leitner.
Onel Hernandez and Josh Murphy were deployed as genuine wingers in a 4-2-3-1 formation and that brought more out of big striker Dennis Srbeny, who looked far less isolated than Nelson Oliveira has at times.
Murphy’s play had won the initial corner from which Vrancic opened the scoring. That duo linked again in the 22nd minute as Royals left-back Tyler Blackett did well to stop Hernandez turning home Murphy’s cross and it was again Vrancic playing the City academy product clean through three minutes later, with a fine Chris Gunter block denying Murphy a goal.
Up stepped the irrepressible Maddison – again skipping away from the opposition like a Premier League star in waiting throughout – to swing in a corner from which Hanley powered home for 2-0.
It was only the third time this season that Norwich had moved into a two-goal lead in a league game at Carrow Road, in their 19th home game of the Championship campaign. Just let that marinade for a second.
Home form has been thoroughly disappointing this season, Farke and his players have not tried to hide from that and have spoken regularly about their attempts to try and rectify those failings.
After 25 minutes, it was 2-0 and the Canaries faithful were chanting “we want seven” to remind Reading of their 7-1 nightmare of last season.
That was optimistic though, with a sixth home victory of the season at stake. Nerves would soon return, with City’s confidence simply not as damaged as their opponents – who are still recovering from their play-off final hangover.
Hanley brought down Modou Barrow, Liam Kelly stung the gloves of Angus Gunn and the keeper then had to be alert to save from Sone Aluko with his feet. His defence thought he had cleared the danger and switched off, only for Kelly to pop up to the left of the six-yard box and lash a low shot home. This was no time for over-confidence.
Murphy again sparked the move for a third goal though, marking his 100th appearance for City with another highly encouraging effort, to build on his point-saving efforts at Barnsley in midweek. His run and cross saw Royals keeper Anssi Jaakkola bundle over Maddison and give the hosts a fresh chance for a two-goal advantage.
Maddison made no mistake, rolling home his third penalty in three games to take his goal tally for the season to 14. City fans know how good the former Coventry youngster is though. It was signs of growth elsewhere in the team that were needed.
Hernandez may have been culpable defensively for allowing Kelly to cross so easily and catch out the City defence in the 52nd minute, allowing Sam Smith to poke past Gunn from close range and make it 3-2, but the Cuban again looked exciting in attack.
Srbeny should have calmed the nerves when he had just the keeper to beat in the 76th minute but pulled his low shot wide of the far post, to see his big moment – and a 4-2 lead – slip from his grasp.
That meant Gunn would be needed to deny substitute Yann Kermogant excellently at his near post in the 82nd minute, as Reading lumped the ball forward.
After seven games without a win – but six of them draws – this felt like Farke’s team finally moving back out of neutral and finding first gear, particularly given the injury issues.
Progress was clear for all to see but there is still much work to be done in the final eight games, starting with a seriously tough test against in-form Fulham after the international break.