Melissa Rudd: Get ready for what could be a pivotal weekend in City's season

PUBLISHED: 12:00 10 January 2019 | UPDATED: 12:39 10 January 2019

Daniel Farke takes his Norwich City side to The Hawthorns on Saturday. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

Daniel Farke takes his Norwich City side to The Hawthorns on Saturday. Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images

Paul Chesterton

As injury-time sucker punches go, Portsmouth's 95th minute winner on Saturday was among the easier ones to take.

As frustrating as it was to have held firm with 10 men for almost 80 minutes only to concede in the dying moments, a midweek trip to Fratton Park sandwiched between games against West Brom and Birmingham would hardly have been ideal.

While a morale-boosting win would have been nice given City have now only managed one win in six, a narrow 1-0 defeat against the League One leaders won’t damage confidence.

Had it not been for Grant Hanley’s early red card we could have been discussing a positive result despite eight changes to the starting line-up.

The scheduling of the third round of English football’s most prestigious Cup competition is a debate for another day, but having navigated four games in 11 days it is hardly surprising that so many sides in the Championship and Premier League field under-strength teams.

Farke said afterwards that he felt it was right to ‘take the risk’ with his team selection, and the small margin of defeat to a team riding high in the division below suggests he was correct in doing so.

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It was a performance that could have easily merited a place in the fourth round, and other teams around City in the table did similar. West Brom made nine changes but carved out a 1-0 win over a weakened Wigan, while Leeds made six and lost against QPR.

Sheffield United’s exit at the hands of National League side Barnet turned out to be the shock of the round, exacerbated by manager Chris Wilder’s post-match comments in which he said the Bramall Lane crowd ‘should have booed louder’ at the ‘arrogant’ performance of his much-changed side.

Of course, the Blades’ failure to reach the next round also confirms their visit to Carrow Road will go ahead as scheduled on January 26.

The fallout for Farke’s squad is barely comparable.

Given the lofty position City find themselves in, the priority was always going to be the massive game at The Hawthorns in a few days’ time and the key fixtures in the month ahead.

This could well be a pivotal weekend in changing the landscape of the Championship table. Eight of the top 10 teams face each other, and with Leeds entertaining Derby on Friday night, City will know exactly how the land lies when they line up against West Brom.

The margins are so tight that should Norwich pull off a win in the Black Country and other results go their way they could be a point clear at the top come Saturday evening.

A defeat, coupled with wins for Leeds and Sheffield United over Birmingham and they would drop down to fourth.

With the race for promotion so open, teams in the mix might be viewing this January transfer window as a perfect opportunity to gain an advantage over their rivals.

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While history has proven spending big does not guarantee success, a key signing could turn play-off contenders into automatic promotion winners. Saturday’s opponents have already brought in right-back Mason Holgate on loan from Everton.

Though with Farke and Stuart Webber having repeatedly said they are happy with the size of Norwich’s squad, you’d imagine players will only come into the club should others exit.

At least this weekend some of those will have benefitted from a rest in preparation for what is sure to be a tight contest.

Both sides have no doubt improved since the last time they met in August, though the frenetic nature of that 3-4 defeat turned out to be an indication of what to expect at Carrow Road in the months that followed.

Travelling supporters may well be looking for a good omen given injury problems still blight Farke’s team, the fact that Norwich have won on four of their last five visits to West Brom is certainly an encouraging one.

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