David Freezer: Championship crescendo approaching for Norwich, Leeds and Sheffield United
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If you had told any supporter of a Championship club back in August that their team would be 11 points clear of West Brom with 10 games to play, they’d probably have laughed you off as deluded.
If you’d have told a Norwich City fan that, they would have taken the pint out of your hand and called you a taxi.
Yet that’s the remarkable position the Canaries find themselves in as the season enters the finishing straight.
The Baggies sacking Darren Moore after the shame of a 1-1 home draw with relegation-bound Ipswich has to go down as the harshest decision since Birmingham sacked Gary Rowett in December 2016 when seventh and three points off third.
Norwich fans can relate to the Moore situation though when looking back on the end of Neil Adams’ reign in January 2015, although the club legend resigned before he was pushed.
There had been some encouraging signs but enough unconvincing issues to force a change with City seventh and three points adrift of the play-offs. Harsh on the face of it but justified by the upsurge which accompanied Alex Neil’s arrival.
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Albion are hoping a similar bounce will be provided by a new leader but their automatic hopes are already very slim, with Leeds’ 1-0 win at Bristol City on Saturday keeping them nine points ahead of the Baggies in second.
Sheffield United also kept the pressure on the top two by dealing with the awkward challenge posed by relegation-battling local rivals Rotherham, winning 2-0 to maintain a three-horse race for automatic promotion.
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For all three clubs to be clear of a club fresh from eight years in the Premier League is remarkable. The Blades finished 10th last season and Leeds finished a place above Norwich in 13th on goal difference.
It all points towards a thrilling climax to the campaign – but the Canaries have a trump card up their sleeve.
Daniel Farke’s team can pursue a fifth win on the spin when they take on another home game on Wednesday night, against a Hull side whose slim play-off hopes were dealt a big blow by a 3-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest on Saturday.
Secure another Carrow Road success and City will guarantee they will stay in the top two whatever happens at Rotherham on Saturday – regardless of Tuesday’s results, when United host a resurgent Brentford and Leeds go to battling Reading.
That’s thanks to their two closest rivals clashing in a hugely important game at Elland Road on Saturday lunchtime, teeing up this week as potentially decisive at the Championship summit.
Of course all that matters is City continue to take care of their own business. Promotion is in their hands. They can even afford to lose one without falling out of the top two.
It’s a situation that surely defies even the wildest dreams of Stuart Webber as he drew up plans in his Colney war room last summer, trying to ensure Farke had the hungry and focused players required to meet his demands as a starting point.
Those plans have worked out to such an extent that the Canaries are now looking down on West Brom, a club which finished 10th in the Premier League as recently as 2017.
Having to work so hard for the three points against Swansea may have proved timely as well, helping to purge any creeping complacency at Carrow Road as Graham Potter’s developing team reminded the home crowd of the quality throughout the division – unluckily shorn of their main attacking threat due to illness taking down in-form striker Oli McBurnie.
The surge of belief and relief sparked by a moment of memorable class from Emi Buendia reverberated around the stadium, warming up the soaked supporters in the Barclay who had been battered by wind and rain while seeing their team pushed hard.
While the Swans were decent – and the incredible speed of Dan James was a worry – I was never too worried. The quality of City’s chances was far better, this side have proved they can dig in and find goals when they need it most.
One shot on target is all it took, with Teemu Pukki also hitting the post late on. It was the first time this season Farke’s team have only managed to hit the target once and only the third such occasion of his reign.
The importance of that Buendia blockbuster will become clear in the next 10 games but what is already obvious is that beating Hull and Rotherham this week would begin an international break of preparation for the final push, with the Premier League within touching distance.