Paddy Davitt verdict: Farke has all the cards
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Mario Vrancic. Norwich City’s box-to-box midfielder. Yes these are strange times indeed.
In the end it was the perfect conclusion to the perfect script. It might not have felt that way to those 2,000 home fans back inside Carrow Road when Josh Windass headed Sheffield Wednesday in front on the hour mark.
Tony Pulis’ side retreated even deeper, delivered defensive reinforcements from the bench, and prepared to dig in.
But this was not Birmingham City’s approach to desperate survival. There was still a sporadic threat on the counter orchestrated by Barry Bannan that made for uncomfortable viewing for Daniel Farke and the South Stand posse.
Grant Hanley hooked the ball away from Kadeem Harris inside his own penalty area as the Owls’ man tumbled. Pulis screamed for a spot kick from his technical area.
Then Vrancic went to ground just inside his own box minutes later to challenge the same player. It was a precision tackle Alex Tettey would have claimed as his own and about as far removed from what we normally associate with the classy Bosnian. Pulis again exercised his vocal chords from front of house.
The referee refused to be swayed. Take note Darren England. Vrancic’s vital sliding touch was followed by another two of such sublime quality as to marvel at his enduring talent to leave an indelible mark at Championship level.
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Some might accuse Farke of lapsing into hyperbole when he eulogises about a man who perhaps, due to advancing years and a game built on finesse rather than physical endeavour, is now usually an option held in reserve.
But the lavish praise bestowed after this game from his head coach for his match-changing interventions was fitting.
First the show to collect from Ben Gibson then the pivot and seamless thread of a perfectly weighted pass that merely required Josh Martin apply a finishing touch past the advancing Joe Wildsmith. It was the type of penetrative pass Norwich had lacked most of the afternoon.
Martin’s trigger burst made his mind up but it still required the skill of a craftsman. Vrancic might not be the quickest over the ground but his brain is razor sharp.
Roll on three minutes and with the cheers barely subsided it was his diagonal run and clever back heel that brought Max Aarons into range to whip an angled finish past Wildsmith to cap a remarkable comeback. Even by Norwich’s standards.
The needle has nudged towards empty over these past few Championship tussles, with each fresh injury sapping the momentum and limiting Farke’s room for manoeuvre.
Luton Town capitalised, for all the sideshow around the behaviour of the officials. Norwich collectively looked laboured and lethargic at Kenilworth Road.
When Windass put them on the back foot again Farke must have feared the worst. But as he so eloquently put it in his post-match media briefing, when his players heard the club’s anthem then quitting was not an option.
Aarons himself remarked the noise that greeted his winner felt like Carrow Road was bursting at the seams. It is impossible to quantify the impact.
Yet one seriously doubts the outcome would have been the same had those final 10 minutes or so unfolded to the backdrop of a soulless, empty stadium.
The celebrations that greeted the final whistle evoked memories of happier times; scenes revisited from the title-winning season when late drama was par for the course.
For Norwich to have still picked up enough points to remain top during this most testing of injury spells is a credit to the resolve and the character of the group under Farke’s stewardship. But it is also due to the fact they retain the individual quality to turn a game at Championship level.
Vrancic embodies that. His contribution this season already has been immeasurable. He was the title winning talisman down the stretch in 2019.
He has been the difference now in a number of games that could have easily tipped the other way. To witness the added impact of Aarons and Martin in this game, or how Teemu Pukki and Emi Buendia have grabbed the headlines previously, is to appreciate this squad is peerless in the Championship.
Whether that proves to be good enough come May is equally down to the vagaries of injury and suspension and maybe a slice or two of good fortune.
But should City’s key personnel stay fighting fit Farke is playing with the strongest hand of any rival in a promotion race shaping up to be a test of endurance as much as skill.