David Freezer: Mario’s mega moment for City has sparked a surge of added belief
©Focus Images Limited www.focus-images.co.uk +447814 482222
I’m going to be unashamedly positive when looking ahead to Norwich City’s possible promotion at Stoke today – thanks to a moment of magic from Mario Vrancic.
The difference the midfielder's superb free-kick has made to the mood around the Canaries this weekend has been huge, beating back the negative vibes with almost the last kick of the game against Sheffield Wednesday.
Although the draw hasn't made a huge difference to the promotion race in terms of points, it's certainly breathed fresh belief into City fans, after yet another memorable Carrow Road moment.
It's the latest crucial goal which proves Daniel Farke's squad have something special about them, a never-say-die spirit which has been pivotal in their rise to the verge of the Premier League.
From a 'wobble' of two draws and a defeat, to salvaging a third consecutive draw and extending an unbeaten run to 11 games. Vrancic's goal could prove pivotal.
I'm certain City are going to seal the deal, the points are in the bag, so here are some positive reasons to help reenforce your faith in them sealing the deal...
Two further goals has pushed Farke's team on to an excellent 87 scored this season and within just one of matching the club record in the second tier.
That was set by Alex Neil's team of 2014-15, scoring 88 on their way to play-off promotion, matching the total scored in a trio of Division Three South campaigns in the 1930s. The League One title winners managed 89 in 2009-10 but the overall club record looks safe, with 99 scored during the Division Three season of 1952-53.
MARIO'S THE MAN
Only top scorer Teemu Pukki has a better goals-to-minutes ratio than Friday night's hero of the hour Vrancic, who fired home his eighth goal of the season with that crucial free-kick.
Of City's regular starters it's no surprise that Pukki is top with a goal on average of every 132 league minutes, according to WhoScored.com, but the Bosnian isn't far behind with one every 159 minutes, ahead of Jordan Rhodes (169) and Emi Buendia (324).
Just where would City be without his winner at Reading, the only successful penalty of their season to beat Wigan 1-0 at home, without the deflected strike which sparked the epic comeback against Forest and of course that priceless brace at Leeds?
Vrancic is a class player who has contended with injury issues to still play a major role in this superb campaign.
CARROW ROAD COMFORTS
Salvaging a draw on Friday ensured Farke's 'living room' remains a fortress, with just one defeat in the last 16 league games at Carrow Road – and just the 42 league goals scored by City in those games.
You certainly get value for money in entertainment terms but the club record for home goals looks set to remain with the squad of 2016-17, who managed 55. Farke's team have an excellent 49 to their name so would need to put six past Blackburn on Saturday to match that record.
TEEMU AT THE TOP
Teemu Pukki may not have been able to add to his 27 league goals against Wednesday but his remarkable season already places him among esteemed company.
While his achievements in Norwich City terms have already been discussed at length, there are only four players who have scored more than the Finn in the last 20 years in the second tier.
Lee Hughes plundered a superb 31 for West Brom in 1998-99 and Glenn Murray hit 30 for Crystal Palace to claim the Championship golden boot in 2012-13.
Pukki now only needs one goal to match the 28 managed by Shaun Goater for Manchester City (2001-02) and Ross McCormack for Leeds (2013-14). His golden boot isn't safe yet though as Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham has four goals in his last five games for Aston Villa to take his tally to 25.
REFUSING TO BE BEATEN
Vrancic's last-gasp equaliser stretched the current unbeaten run to 11 games, matching a run not achieved by City in the top two tiers for over 25 years.
Farke's team did manage 12 unbeaten in the league between October and December of this season but that was interrupted by the League Cup loss at Bournemouth.
Paul Lambert's League One title winners managed a streak of 12 without defeat during 2009-10, which were all league games apart from one EFL Trophy draw.
But you have to go back to 1993-94 for the last time Norwich were unbeaten in 11 in all competitions in the top two tiers, which included the Uefa Cup ties against Arnham and Bayern Munich.
It's actually just one defeat in 18 league games now, and just two in 31, which says so much about the spirit of the current Canaries.
• PROMOTION VENUE?
The sooner City get the job done, the better, I'm sure we can all agree on that.
Yet the 3,000 fans who will be roaring their team on at Stoke and the 8,000 watching the beam-back at Carrow Road will have to keep a close eye on Sheffield United.
The only thing that matters this afternoon is that Farke's team beat the Potters and hold up their end of the bargain. If that's combined with the Blades failing to win at Hull in another 3pm kick-off then it's done and dusted, promotion is sealed and the party can begin in Staffordshire and Norfolk.
However, should Sheffield United and City both win, then it's on to an anxious wait to see if Leeds slip up against Brentford at 5.15pm – so City's fate could be decided at around 7pm.
Of course the perfect scenario would see City win and their rivals lose, wrapping up the Championship title today as well, but that seems unlikely. If one of them wins then at least a chance to win the title at Carrow Road is opened up – but winning is all that matters today.
• STUBBORN STOKE
At the start of this season, like so many others, I was predicting Stoke would bounce back to the Premier League at the first attempt.
With wealthy owners and 10 years in the top flight behind them, the Potters looked too strong. That relegation hangover has been tough to shift though, as Gary Rowett found to his cost.
Nathan Jones gave up an imminent promotion to the Championship with Luton in January and must be wishing he hadn't with the Potters meandering in mid-table, after just three wins from his 16 games.
Eight of those were draws though and the 1-0 loss at Boro on Friday was just a second defeat in 12 matches, keeping a remarkable seven sheets during that improved run.
A team including Wales internationals Ashley Williams and Joe Allen, as well as former City loan striker Sam Vokes, is unlikely to just roll over and let Norwich kick-off their promotion party – unless thoughts have started to drift to some summer sunshine.