Classy assist but wasted chances as Vrancic tries to secure City starting role
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Mario Vrancic was given another opportunity to nail down his starting role in the Norwich City team and played an influential role in a 4-1 win over Stoke - but wasted some good chances to make a bigger impact.
The classy midfielder registered his fourth assist of the campaign, during his 13th league start, and it was a crucial intervention as he returned to Daniel Farke's starting line-up, as his back-heel kept a wonderful Todd Cantwell run going and allowed his team-mate to thump the hosts ahead in just the 15th minute.
After four games without a goal, it was Cantwell taking the bull by the horns to get the Canaries back on track before Stoke could really start to frustrate the promotion hopefuls - with Vrancic playing a similar role to Max Aarons' winner against Sheffield Wednesday at Carrow Road in December, when he had the awareness to back-heel the right-back in on goal.
City fans are monitoring the Bosnia & Herzegovina international's form carefully at the moment though, as debate about the best starting 'number 10' rumbles on and thoughts turn to whether the 31-year-old will get a new contract to take his Norwich stint beyond four seasons.
Vrancic was on the fringes of Farke's team early in the season, having struggled for consistent form in the Premier League, but returned to the fore after coming off the bench with late winners against Wycombe and Birmingham in October.
With Kieran Dowell missing three months after ankle surgery and Marco Stiepermann knocked out by an energy-sapping virus in December, Farke has needed Vrancic, and while his form has been fairly consistent he hasn't managed to hit the heights of 2018-19.
In just the fifth minute his delicate chip found Emi Buendia in the Stoke box on Saturday, with Teemu Pukki crowded out and then Buendia unable to squeeze the ball past a grounded Angus Gunn.
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Five minutes later and Vrancic could well have opened the scoring himself, getting across his marker to meet a deep cross from Max Aarons near the penalty spot, only to tamely side-foot his volley into Gunn's gloves.
An almost identical situation unfolded three minutes later but the former Paderborn man got his header all wrong after being picked out by Aarons, looping his effort wide.
Thankfully, his contribution to Cantwell's opener meant that wastefulness wouldn't be punished, as a fired-up City team went for the jugular as they bounced back impressively from their defeat at Swansea.
With Farke demanding better pressing when out of possession from Vrancic and Pukki, the midfielder crunched into a tackle in the 22nd minute to dispossess Nick Powell and allow Buendia to send Pukki away - only for James Chester to get a toe on the ball and poke it back to Gunn.
Having also sent Pukki clear in the left himself, Vrancic played an inadvertent role in City going 2-0 up, with his control letting him down but Buendia closing down Morgan Fox quickly to then cross for Pukki just before the break.
It could have been a far more memorable 45 minutes but the former Germany Under-20 international was certainly in the thick of the action and very nearly sent Pukki clear three minutes into the second half, only for the towering Harry Souttar to get his head in the way.
He very nearly had the chance to complete a sensational team goal in the 53rd minute, after fine play from Cantwell and Buendia out of defence and a one-two between Kenny McLean and Dimitris Giannoulis on the left, only for McLean to just put too much on his pass into the Stoke penalty area.
After sending a corner too deep Vrancic had been relieved to see Skipp track back with a fine tackle and was also needed in defence to clear his lines as the Potters rallied, ahead of Giannoulis' mistake giving Powell an easy finish to halve the deficit in the 61st minute.
The hosts tried to respond immediately and Vrancic teed up Cantwell, who curled a powerful effort over from the edge of the area.
That crucial third goal did arrive in the 65th minute though, with Giannoulis bouncing back excellently from his error with a shimmy and cross that looked to be heading to the cultured left boot of Vrancic in the area - only for Buendia to react quicker and slot home the volley instead.
As Vrancic clenched both fists in celebration and relief, there looked to only be joy about the goal in the aftermath, rather than frustration at having a big chance to score snatched away from him.
Replaced by Lukas Rupp six minutes later, it may not have been a day for 'Super Mario' headlines but Vrancic certainly played his part in the attacking juggernaut which overwhelmed Stoke during a chaotic match which could - and perhaps should - have featured even more goals.
VERDICT: Three goals and four assists from 24 Championship matches is a decent return but City fans know Vrancic is capable of more. With Dowell fit and Stiepermann hoping to be back in contention soon, after McLean was pushed forward during the defeat at Swansea, there is no time to waste if the cultured midfielder wants to play another pivotal role in a promotion push.
RATING: 7 out of 10