Norwich City will not get a better chance to book their 2012/13 Premier League ticket
For Norwich City fans of a nervous disposition, still uncertain whether their team has done enough to secure another season in the Premier League – and mathematically, they certainly have not – midweek events at Ewood Park and Loftus Road will not exactly have put them at ease.
First Blackburn Rovers maintained their recovery with a 2-0 home win over Sunderland on Tuesday night, a result that put them into the top six in the current form table.
Then struggling Queens Park Rangers staged the most unlikely of comebacks with three goals in the final 13 minutes against Carling Cup winners and FA Cup semi-finalists Liverpool to record their first win in eight league games.
Had Aston Villa played Tuesday’s scheduled home game against Bolton Wanderers and won it, the Canaries would now be 15th in the table and first in the firing line for teams in the bottom five to overtake, though still a fairly distant prey for the bottom three. Third from bottom Bolton are still 13 points adrift of Norwich, albeit with a game in hand.
Of course, the table can be misleading. The middle of the Premier League is so tight that, between the top six and bottom six, only six points separate eight teams from Liverpool in seventh down to Norwich in 14th.
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It is still very unlikely that any of the bottom three will overtake the Canaries. Even if City, heaven forbid, failed to collect a single point from now on, Wigan and Wolves would each need five wins from nine games to go above them, while Bolton would need a minimum of four wins and a draw plus a substantial turnaround in goal difference. A tall order.
Further comfort can be drawn from the fact that, even on the two occasions when City collapsed dramatically in the closing weeks of the season and were relegated from the top flight, they were not as well placed as they are now.
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In 1985, when their post-Milk Cup slump sent them tumbling into Division Two, they went into the final nine games with a seven-point advantage, plus a game in hand, over the team third from bottom.
In 1995, when four clubs went down from the Premiership to help reduce it to 20 teams the following season, City were eight points clear of the bottom four with eight matches left. The greatest pessimist probably did not expect them to lose the next seven.
Even though City have slipped six places in less than six weeks since winning at Swansea, a 13-point cushion is much greater than that enjoyed in ’85 or ’95 – and one would like to think the current side under Paul Lambert is nothing like as brittle.
The manager was certainly entertaining no doubts about his team’s chances of survival after the 1-0 defeat at Newcastle on Sunday.
While Lambert is careful not to take anything for granted until it is a mathematical certainty, he was uncharacteristically forthright when asked if he was worried about collecting enough points in the weeks ahead.
He said: “I always am confident. We’ve got a good lead and we’ll be fine. I have a great belief in the lads.
“I trust them 100 per cent that we’ll win more games than not. I’ve got no fears whatever.”
There would certainly be a few raised eyebrows and maybe just the odd nervous twitch if the Canaries failed to dispose of bottom-of-the-table Wolves at Carrow Road.
Lambert has argued that home games against the teams at the bottom are among the toughest, because all the expectation is on the hosts, while the visitors have nothing to lose and can play with more freedom away from their disgruntled home crowd.
It could be argued that the draws at home to Blackburn and Wigan support that argument, since both teams arrived at Carrow Road in bottom spot and both were unlucky not to win, though it must be said City were distinctly off-colour on both occasions.
But neither Blackburn nor Wigan were in quite such disarray as Wolves, who have conceded five goals in three of their last five league games, and have taken just four points out of the last 24 available.
If one more win is going to be enough to put the Canaries out of harm’s way, the sooner they get it the better, and they will not get a better opportunity than a home game against the bottom team – the closest they will get to an open goal between now and May 13.
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It’s not so long ago that City used five goalkeepers in one season, three of them signed on loan by then manager Peter Grant, but that list pales in comparison to the number of centre-half combinations fielded during the current Premier League campaign.
It seems light years ago that Ritchie de Laet and Zak Whitbread kicked off the season at Wigan in the centre of defence. And when Whitbread made way for substitute Leon Barnett during the second half at the DW Stadium, it set the tone for months of chopping and changing, most of it enforced through injuries to players such as Whitbread, Elliott Ward and Daniel Ayala.
De Laet has come and gone, Russell Martin has had an accomplished stint in the centre, mostly alongside Barnett or Whitbread, and even Kyle Naughton had more than half a match as emergency centre-back alongside Martin.
Now City have reverted to last season’s successful promotion-winning pair of Whitbread and Ward, who was named captain at Newcastle last week.
But with both players out of contract in the summer and no news yet of a new deal for either, it would take a brave fan to forecast just who will start next season in the middle of the back four.
Most surprising of all is that City spent a reported �3m-plus on the deadline day capture of England Under-21 international Ryan Bennett, but he hasn’t even made the bench in the last two matches. It could be the longest wait for a debut for any seven-figure signing in club history.