Six things you might have missed after Norwich City's win over Rotherham
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
As Norwich City take control of the Championship promotion race, David Freezer takes a look at six key issues following the Canaries' deserved 1-0 home win over Rotherham.
1 - Spring in their step
How swiftly the mood can change. Prior to the last three games City had been knocked off top spot and were without a goal in four games. Nerves were kicking in.
Seven goals and nine points later, with rivals faltering and star players firing, the Canaries are flying seven points clear of the chasing pack.
Having 64 points from 31 games keeps the class of 2021 two ahead of the City title winners of 2004 and four ahead of Daniel Farke's champions of 2019.
In the last 10 Championship seasons all but one of the teams sat top with 15 matches remaining went up (Boro in 2015), although Hull (2016) and West Ham (2012) needed the play-offs.
Only four leaders at this stage had more than 64 points, with Wolves on an impressive 71 in 2018, and only three had a bigger advantage over their rivals, again with Wolves in the best position of 11 points clear.
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2 – Familiar theme
Yet again however the heart rates were a fair bit higher than they needed to be in the closing stages, as a host of clear chances to make the win more comfortable were wasted.
Yet the fitness and control of possession City specialise in got the job done to make it 33 points from a possible 45 against the 12 teams currently in the bottom half – completing a hard fought double over Paul Warne’s spirited Millers.
Only Derby and Luton from those teams have managed to upset the Canaries, with QPR, Coventry and Preston earning draws at Carrow Road.
This small section of the season against lowly sides, when City are heavy favourites and expected to win, has started well against Coventry and Rotherham.
Continue in last week’s style, mixing fight with flair against desperate sides, at Birmingham and Wycombe this week and 70 points will see a play-off place already within touching distance.
3 - Frustrated Mario
It just won’t quite happen for Mario Vrancic at the moment, involved in plenty of decent build-up play and valued by his team-mates but with key contributions evading him.
Three goals and four assists in 26 games is a reasonable return but his last goal from open play was the late winner against Birmingham in October, with a free-kick winner against Wycombe in the next match and a penalty against Coventry in November.
The 31-year-old slapped his forehead in frustration after firing wide after good play from Teemu Pukki early in the first half on Saturday, as his pursuit of another goal continued after a series of recent chances wasted.
Perhaps the popular midfielder’s desire to impress with his contract expiring is causing him to snatch at chances? He was unfortunate not to have a fifth assist though, as Emi Buendia’s shot cannoned into Rotherham defender Clark Robertson on the line after a good run and cross from Vrancic.
4 - Defensive switch
City were forced into a change ahead of the Rotherham clash after Ben Gibson felt a twinge in his back, initially warming up for the game but being replaced on the bench by Andrew Omobamidele.
That meant a first league start for Christoph Zimmermann since late December and, other than a couple of inevitable rusty moments, the German helped seal a sixth clean sheet in eight league games.
It was the eighth league match of the season with Grant Hanley and Zimmermann starting in central defence, with six of those wins and just five conceded. Gibson may well reclaim his place quickly but the 28-year-old again proved he can be relied upon.
He was perhaps lucky to avoid injury in the first half as well though, as referee Tony Harrington bizarrely didn’t even give a free-kick for a late tackle by Matt Crooks which was similar to the Sebastien Haller lunge which injured Zimmermann at West Ham last season.
5 – Strengthening steel
It was a 12th Championship clean sheet of the season for the leaders, just one fewer than was managed during the 2018-19 title triumph and three fewer than during Farke’s transitional first campaign.
If the Canaries can keep another five in their final 15 matches they would equal the club’s second-tier record for a 46-game season, of 17 clean sheets, managed by the title winners of 2004 with Malky Mackay and Craig Fleming at the heart of defence and Rob Green in goal.
The title winners of 1972 and 1986 also managed 17 shutouts from 42-match campaigns. It’s the promotion winners of 1975 that hold the record though, of 20 clean sheets, as the likes of Kevin Keelan, Duncan Forbes and Dave Stringer conceded just 37 goals in 42 games.
After so many narrow victories and wasted chances for wins to be more comfortable, that improved defensive resilience has been utterly crucial.
6 – The final flourish?
Farke described it as “a joke” that it was only 1-0 and with the luxury of sitting seven points clear at the summit, City fans can afford to be picky about that profligacy.
Pukki clinically dispatched his latest link-up with Buendia to ease the nerves in just the 17th minute but had already made undercooked a clear sight of goal created by the Argentine, and was twice denied by Viktor Johansson in the second half.
Vrancic fired wide on three occasions, the effervescent Todd Cantwell missed the target twice, Buendia somehow picked out a Millers defender on the line and Vrancic played one key pass just behind Kenny McLean.
It wasn’t totally one-sided though. Angus MacDonald’s header from a corner was perhaps harshly disallowed for a tug on Tim Krul by Dan Barlaser when it was still 0-0, Ben Wiles clipped the crossbar and Max Aarons crucially blocked Crooks’ late strike.
The goal-difference has had a welcome boost of six goals but City are yet to master the truly ruthless dominance of champions. Could that be their final flourish?