Derby County F.C
Dowell the difference at Derby as City close on promotion
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
The promotion party may have been delayed but a return to the Premier League remains all but certain for Norwich City, after a 1-0 win at Derby County.
Kieran Dowell's beautiful free-kick in the first half had given the Championship leaders the advantage but Derby really made the Canaries work hard for their 11th win in 13 games.
The big news arrived ahead of kick-off as Swansea won 3-0 at Millwall in the early game to ensure that City's promotion party wouldn't be at Pride Park if they won.
However, the leaders always needed to win for that to happen and of course still have a title to play for, after Watford beat Reading on Friday night to temporarily cut the gap to five points.
There was little surprise to see Daniel Farke name an unchanged squad following the 7-0 thrashing of Huddersfield at Carrow Road in midweek, the biggest winning margin in a second-tier match in City's history.
The injury-hit hosts had former Canaries loanees Patrick Roberts and Andre Wisdom in their team but with just one win from nine games were still looking nervously at their eight-point cushion to the bottom three ahead of kick-off.
Kenny McLean had a shot deflected over in the fourth minute for the visitors after Dimitris Giannoulis had controlled a pass from Emi Buendia nicely.
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Derby had three players booked inside the opening 20 minutes as they struggled to cope with the leaders, with Dowell curling a free-kick into the side-netting.
The former Everton midfielder made no mistake with his free-kick in the 21st minute though, after winning possession from Craig Forsyth and charging forward before being brought down by the left-back to the right of the D.
Dowell - who was restricted to 10 appearances while on loan at Derby during the first half of last season - curled the set-piece beautifully into the top-right corner with his dangerous left foot, leaving former Norwich number one David Marshall to watch helplessly.
It was a third goal in five games for Dowell and his fourth of the season overall, having missed three months of the first half of the campaign with an ankle injury.
The Rams started to get a foothold in the game though, with former Ipswich midfielder Tom Lawrence firing just wide and good blocks from both Grant Hanley and Andrew Omobamidele needed before the break.
Teemu Pukki nodded a Todd Cantwell cross wide and a low effort from Dowell was also off target after an exciting charge forward.
A competitive half finished 1-0 to City but midfielders Oliver Skipp and Kenny McLean were kept busy, having to break up Derby attacks as the lowly Rams showed spirit.
That continued after the break, with Hanley's strength needed on more than one occasion and Tim Krul forced into a diving save to deny a Teden Mengi shot after a corner.
Dowell's shot from a low Giannoulis cross deflected to Marshall in the 56th minute but with Buendia limping around after several challenges and both Dowell and Skipp guilty of easy losses of possession, Farke decided it was time to act.
Buendia and Dowell were replaced by Marco Stiepermann and Przemek Placheta in the 63rd minute but the City head coach continued to be an extremely angry man on the sidelines as attacks broke down tamely.
Krul was needed to get down low to thwart a jinking run into the box from Roberts in the 74th minute and substitute Louie Sibley drove a low 20-yard shot wide, with the leaders looking tense.
Stiepermann did start to find Pukki more and also crossed for a Max Aarons header which dropped wide, but it was Jordan Hugill on for Pukki with five minutes remaining as the visitors tried to calm things down.
Krul claimed one Roberts free-kick well but the game descended into a scrappy mess, with Hanley continuing to control things at the back as City wrestled back more possession against the tiring hosts.
There was very nearly a disastrous finish for City though, as Krul took too long with a clearance from an Omobamidele pass and was robbed by Colin Kazim-Richards, only for Graham Shinnie to blaze over with the leaders scrambling desperately.
The victory extended City's unbeaten run to 13 matches, with only four longer undefeated runs in the second tier in the club's history.
It also fired the Premier League side in waiting - if not yet mathematically confirmed - to 90 points, which is only the third time in Canaries history that total has been achieved.
With five games still to play, the club record of 94 points at this level is very much within reach, which was achieved in 2004 and 2019.
Attentions now turn to Tuesday night, when Swansea will be ruled out as competitors for City if they fail to win their game in hand at Sheffield Wednesday, ahead of City's promotion potentially being settled next Saturday.
With Brentford winning 5-0 at Preston they returned to third and 17 points behind the leaders, with Swansea 18 behind, so a maximum of two points is needed to finish the job.
On Saturday the Swans host Wycombe, Brentford entertain Millwall and second-placed Watford are at Luton, all in 3pm kick-offs ahead of City hosting Bournemouth at 8pm.
DERBY (4-2-3-1): Marshall (C); McDonald (Ebosele 84), Wisdom, Mengi, Forsyth; Shinnie, Bird; Roberts, Lawrence (Watson 84), Jozwiak (Sibley 69); Kazim-Richards. Unused subs: Roos (GK), Bateman, Buchanan, Baningime, Knight, Shonibare
Booked: Shinnie (foul on Cantwell, 11), Bird (foul on McLean, 15), Forsyth (foul on Dowell, 20), Roberts (foul on Cantwell, 68)
NORWICH (4-2-3-1): Krul; Aarons, Omobamidele, Hanley (C), Giannoulis; Skipp, McLean; Buendia (Placheta 63), Dowell (Stiepermann 63), Cantwell (Tettey 89); Pukki (Hugill 85). Unused subs: Nyland (GK), Mumba, Sorensen, Vrancic, Hernandez
REFEREE: Michael Salisbury (Lancashire)