David Freezer: Motivation at maximum for Canaries ahead of massive game at Leeds
Championship matches don't come much bigger than tonight's sold-out Elland Road top-of-the-table encounter. This one really does have the feel of a mid-season cup final.
Over 37,000 will be packed in at Leeds, the biggest league crowd Norwich will have played in front of since the 4-3 loss at Newcastle in September 2016, when a huge 48,236 saw City throw away a 3-1 lead which proved so damaging to the Alex Neil era.
With an added bit of needle from the Spygate scandal, particularly as the Canaries are one of the 11 clubs who have asked the EFL to investigate Marcelo Bielsa’s actions further, there is little need for Sky Sports to hype up this televised clash.
City will be on the hunt for revenge from a 3-0 home humbling back in August, when a bright start was soon cut through like a hot knife through butter.
When Pablo Hernandez made it three in the 67th minute, I suspect anyone telling the Carrow Road faithful that the return match in February would be between the league’s top two would have advised have been told they’d had one too many beers in the late summer sunshine.
Yet here we are, a reinvigorated Canaries set-up, on and off the pitch, heads to north Yorkshire to face the league leaders just three points adrift and with absolutely nothing to fear.
Unbeaten away from home since August and taking on a Bielsa team which have lost three of their last five, needing a late goal from Mateusz Klich to win at lowly Rotherham last weekend, City can attack this game in the style that suits them best.
Games against the rest of the top six haven’t gone brilliantly so far though, with Daniel Farke’s team claiming just six points from a possible 24 against the other five teams currently seen as the main promotion rivals.
The only victory came when Middlesbrough were beaten 1-0 at Carrow Road in September, with 1-1 draws at Derby and West Brom added to by last weekend’s 2-2 home battle with Sheffield United.
That 3-0 loss to Leeds and last month’s dramatic 4-3 home defeat to Derby added to another 4-3 home defeat, to West Brom, and a 2-1 loss at Sheffield United in August – scoring 12 and conceding 17 in total against their closest rivals. On the other hand, City have had few problems dealing with the rest of the division, keeping their unexpected promotion challenge on track.
It’s little surprise that Leeds have the best record against the rest of the top six so far, on 13 points from a possible 18, with West Brom the next best on 10 points from six games.
Derby, however, have 12 from a possible 27 having already played the rest of the top six twice, apart from a final day hosting of West Brom which is still to come. Similarly, after tonight, City will only have a trip to Boro left.
However, Leeds, Sheffield United, Boro and West Brom will all still have three of those crunch clashes still to come after this weekend, accounting for the Baggies hosting Boro today.
That’s plenty of points for City’s nearest and not-so-dearest to drop between now and the finish line.
Add into the mix the deadline day drama at Elland Road, as Swansea seemingly pulled the plug on the deal for flying winger Daniel James at the last minute on Thursday, and Bielsa deciding to play some mind games by naming his team two days before the game as well – and it’s easy to see why Canaries fans are buzzing for this one.
Meanwhile, City’s sporting director Stuart Webber once again had his feet up watching the others frantically straining for last-minute deals, with Boro boss Tony Pulis even admitting he gave up around 4pm due to financial restrictions, including missing out on loaning Jacob Murphy – so he took his staff down the pub!
There’s a couple of other things for City to work towards tonight.
Firstly, Leeds haven’t completed a league double over a Canaries side since the top-flight season of 1980-81, with the clubs in the same division in 14 of the 38 campaigns since then.
But more importantly, there’s a club record up for grabs. Farke’s team are unbeaten in 12 away league games, matching the achievement of Alex Neil’s side of 2015, going 11 Championship away games unbeaten on the way to the play-offs and then winning the first Premier League game of 2015-16, at Sunderland.
So if defeat can be avoided at Elland Road, the new away league record will be set at 13, with the record in all competitions of 14 in sight – as Neil’s team also drew at Ipswich in the play-offs and won a League Cup game at Rotherham.
I suspect they won’t need any added motivation this evening though. Roll on kick-off, this should be a real cracker.
• LEGENDS ASSEMBLE!
Among the cultural changes brought in by City’s management in the last 18 months, it’s been good to see former players being welcomed back to the club.
Iwan Roberts was the latest legend to return this week, writing in his column for us that it was the first time in more than 10 years that he’d been back to Colney. The big man may have been critical of the club at times during his media work over the years but after all he did on the pitch, such prominent ex-players should be kept close by.
From the likes of Dave Stringer, Bryan Gunn and Adam Drury handing over framed shirts to the club’s new players earlier in the season, to Iwan becoming guest editor of the matchday programme and getting on ‘handsomely’ with Stuart Webber, it’s something fans want to see.
The idea to donate £1 from each of that special £4 programme edited by Iwan, for the derby next Sunday, to the crowd-funding for the flags and banners of Along Come Norwich and Barclay End Norwich is spot on as well.
• DECENT RECOGNITION
It may have been a tough season for City’s under-23s but striker Anthony Spyrou has managed to maintain some good form, which has been recognised with an award nomination.
The 19-year-old took his tally to 10 goals in 20 games for the U23s this season by scoring four goals in four games last month, earning the Essex boy a place on the shortlist for the Premier League Two Player of the Month gong.
Winners of the award during last season included Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden and Chelsea attacker Callum Hudson-Odoi – who Bayern Munich reportedly bid £35m for last month – as well as Harvey Barnes and Harry Wilson, who have impressed on loan in the Championship this season.
Closer to home, Todd Cantwell was nominated for the PL2 Player of the Year award in 2017.
Spyrou has the size, skill and determination to handle a shot at men’s football, from what I’ve seen, and looks to be ready for a proper loan opportunity next season.