Melissa Rudd: City can't afford to take their foot off the gas
With every fixture that gets ticked off, there's an increasing feeling that Norwich City are about to approach the home straight of this nine-month marathon.
After they ended that tricky period of games against West Brom, Birmingham, Sheffield United, Leeds and Ipswich undefeated and with a return of 11 points from a possible 15 it seemed like there were only a couple more ‘big’ hurdles to overcome.
The disappointing defeat at Preston, though, proved that every game between now and May 5 is a potential stumbling block. City can’t afford to take their foot off the gas even though on paper their run-in is by far the most favourable compared to their automatic promotion rivals.
Norwich only have two fixtures remaining against the current top eight, Middlesbrough away in April but more pressingly Bristol City at Carrow Road on Saturday. The Championship’s form team did at least experience defeat against Wolves in the FA Cup on Sunday, but their ascent to the promotion places has been very impressive.
They were seven points off the top six after a 1-1 draw with Brentford on Boxing Day. Since then Lee Johnson’s side have won seven consecutive league matches to go sixth – and they could still have a huge role to play in the promotion shake-up given that they still have fixtures against Leeds, West Brom and Sheffield United to come.
Norwich’s dismantling of Bolton last weekend was the perfect reaction to the loss at Deepdale, and that same level of performance will be needed against a team who haven’t tasted a league defeat since November.
If you take a look at the remaining fixtures, there are going to be a number of weekends when it’s impossible for automatic promotion chasing teams to gain maximum points. As well as Bristol City, Leeds have West Brom and Sheffield United still to play. West Brom and Sheffield United both have to face four of the current top eight, including each other. So instead of sweating on news that all teams around City have picked up points, we will only have ourselves to worry about.
If Daniel Farke’s team have proved anything this season, it’s that they are masters of concentrating on the task in hand and ignoring issues off the pitch, like the hype around the Leeds game, Paul Lambert’s touchline drama against Ipswich, and the obvious need to get a result at Bolton after a first away defeat since August. On each occasion City’s players have done their talking the only place that matters.
The manner of Norwich’s goals on Saturday really was something to behold. The slickness of passing, movement and finishing was a delight to watch. The only criticism of a fantastic display was yet another missed penalty.
Despite his missed attempt against Millwall in November, surely the time has come for Teemu Pukki to be reinstated as the first-choice taker. The Finn is in the form of his life, and never before in his career has he scored more than 20 goals in a season, or smashed eight goals in the space of six matches.
Pukki hasn’t just shown how clinical he is in front of goal, but also how integral he is to creating chances for others. He has the second most assists in the squad (six) alongside Onel Hernandez and behind Emi Buendia (7). To put that into perspective, it’s the same number as Josh Murphy, Cameron Jerome and Nelson Oliveira managed between them in 2017/18. The 28-year-old will need to be on top form again on Saturday if City are to break down the second best defence in the league.