Paddy Davitt verdict: Cup finals aplenty if City seal the deal
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
To watch Norwich City tamely exit the FA Cup is to fully appreciate again how good they have been to this point in the Championship.
Daniel Farke’s commitment to the cup is beyond reproach since he arrived in England. But success or failure will be defined this season by promotion back to the Premier League. Plenty of hard graft has engineered a position of enviable strength. Yet the hardest work still lies ahead.
Farke is grappling with injuries and increasingly the corrosive impact, in a strictly footballing sense, from unavailability due to coronavirus.
Yes, you could reasonably argue he still has the resource to operate on two fronts. But the sight of Jordan Hugill prone on the Oakwell turf clutching his left hamstring underlined what is really important. It was not progress to the fifth round for the second consecutive season. It was emerging unscathed for the resumption of the league campaign against Middlesbrough.
The severity of Hugill’s injury will become clearer in the days ahead. Thankfully, Farke will have Teemu Pukki and hopefully Adam Idah back for Boro, if the duo successfully navigate a return to team training this week.
But can one imagine if it had been Emi Buendia or Olly Skipp gingerly bailing out of a forgettable FA Cup fourth round tie?
Farke talked about getting the balance right on Friday, between targeting cup advancement and protecting those crucial components who have clocked up so many miles. If the German really had no interest in cup progress you can be sure Max Aarons would have made way for Bali Mumba.
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Maybe even Alex Tettey deployed in central defence to give either Grant Hanley or Ben Gibson a breather. And Buendia and Skipp would have had their feet up at home.
City had more than enough quality on display to get past a committed Barnsley, who showed no such inclination to prioritise league progress over cup success in their selection criteria.
What Farke discovered was his attacking midfielders, and Lukas Rupp, were badly in need of game time after injury and illness. There was a disjointed, fitful, haphazard hue to Norwich’s attacking endeavour in the final third on a pudding of a pitch. That is not meant as excuses, but mitigation.
Given Rupp, in particular, is likely to be needed alongside Skipp this coming weekend, with Kenny McLean in self-isolation, it was imperative the midfielder had a chance to dust off the cobwebs. So too Onel Hernandez and Przemyslaw Placheta.
Should Todd Cantwell’s own hamstring and back related issues provide only temporary discomfort he will resume his creative double act with Buendia against the Teessiders. As individuals they are very good in the Championship.
In tandem they are peerless at this level. They are the difference between a competitive outfit and one setting the standard.
But Farke may well need to call on either Hernandez or Placheta down the stretch. This was his last realistic chance to get them a start before entering that finishing straight.
What we witnessed on a bitterly cold day in South Yorkshire was not the composure that has defined the weekly quest for three points. Farke made even more personnel changes for the previous third round win over Coventry, but the difference at Barnsley was the approach of the opponent.
Whereas Coventry were lacklustre and unable to haul themselves off the canvas after the Canaries’ early burst, Barnsley backed up the visitors and relentlessly maintained the pressure.
Tim Krul will have little cause to look back fondly on his 100th appearance, but it certainly provided the shot-stopping practice he perhaps needed.
These are the residual benefits Farke will bank. Minutes for fringe players, rest for some key operators, and for the likes of Tyrese Omotoye and Josh Martin another lesson or two learned. A home fifth round date would have been a bonus.
Should City achieve their objective come May, few, if any, will remember or particularly care about a miserable winter’s day in Barnsley. That is not to dismiss the allure of the FA Cup. It is to accept the Premier League and its vast wealth is a greater prize.
Particularly this season of all seasons, with fans unable to savour the spine tingling experience of a trip to Tottenham with 9,000 other kindred spirits.
Get the better of Middlesbrough at Carrow Road, and complete the job over the weeks ahead, and those fans can hope to see the return of the biggest and best in Norfolk again next season.