Rusty returns could prove crucial in the long run for fit-again City stars
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
There was little surprise to see a disjointed display from Norwich City at Barnsley, with all five midfield players looking to shake off some rust.
For winger Onel Hernandez it was his first start since groin surgery in October, for central midfielder Lukas Rupp his first start since his initial hamstring problem in November.
Long-serving stalwart Alex Tettey made his seventh start of the season and City fans already know the 34-year-old former Norway international is a safe pair of hands.
It was Tettey's 15th appearance overall and while there was plenty of decent defensive work in the mix, he understandably didn't have the energy and rhythm that Olly Skipp has been displaying, being replaced by the Tottenham loanee in the 63rd minute.
Kieran Dowell was making his fifth Canaries start, having been forced to be patient since returning from his September ankle surgery ahead of schedule in December.
After five appearances as a substitute the summer signing from Everton missed a potential start against Coventry in the last round of the FA Cup due to a need for another minor operation, to remove a screw from the surgery which was causing irritation.
His first start for over four months finally arrived at Oakwell though, playing as the central playmaker between Hernandez and Przemek Placheta as the wide threats - and was involved in City's best chances of the disappointing 1-0 defeat.
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Largely thanks to the excellence of Tim Krul, the Canaries were still in with a shout of a fightback against Barnsley. After Skipp and Emi Buendia had replaced Tettey and Hernandez with just over 25 minutes remaining, the visitors pushed for an equaliser.
Rupp - who had lost the ball in the build-up to the goal - drove forward in the 73rd minute and squared to Dowell on the edge of the box, where the former England Under-21 international showed good awareness to step over the ball and leave the chance for Placheta in space.
It had largely been a frustrating day for the Poland international - not helped by a poor pitch, featuring bare pitches filled in with sand and plenty of lumps and bumps to make a winger's life difficult.
The 22-year-old had started in the last round against Coventry, after shaking off his hamstring troubles to return at the start of the year, and had been involved in both of the early goals which wrapped up that win.
On this occasion his radar was just a little off, thumping his big chance past the keeper but just a bit too high, with the ball cannoning down off the crossbar but bouncing away from goal.
It summed up the Pole's day. He could have been the star of the show but whether it was an awful attempted clearance going out for a corner to leave his head coach fuming, or slipping as he charged onto a good pass in the box, it just didn't quite happen for him.
That was in the 73rd minute and within three minutes Dowell and Placheta were involved again, with a lovely flick from the former sending the latter clean through on the left wing. The speed demon just put a bit too much pace on his pass to a waiting Buendia though and the Argentine had to turn goalwards on the stretch, only to see Tykes goal-scorer Callum Styles make a heroic block.
Soon after Rupp and Dowell were replaced by Josh Martin and Mario Vrancic, taking their place on the bench alongside Tettey and Hernandez after a frustrating shift. They were vital minutes in the tank though, with Placheta going on to complete the full game.
Rupp and Dowell in particular looked rusty to start with but grew into the challenge before understandably looking tired. With Todd Cantwell missing with a hamstring concern and Kenny McLean now isolating due to Covid-19, there's every chance that at least one of Rupp, Dowell or Placheta will be needed to start against Middlesbrough on Saturday.
For Hernandez, he's at an earlier stage of his recovery, after close to three months out. Canaries fans know just how destructive the Cuban can be from his excellent 2018-19 contributions and there were promising signs of his explosive pace remaining intact.
But whether it was losing possession before an early Barnsley chance, being caught offside or slipping after Aarons' defensive header had landed at the feet of Styles ahead of the goal, it was an important stage in his search for match sharpness.
VERDICT: Daniel Farke made a big call in playing an entire midfield without much in the way of match fitness or rhythm, clearly making the decision that it was crucial to the bigger picture of the promotion race.
He will of course have hoped it would still be enough to secure FA Cup progression and there was no doubt City were trying to get back into the tie, but the lack of fluency and confidence that the regular starters have been displaying recently just dipped too far to pull off that balancing act successfully.
RATINGS: Dowell (6), Hernandez (5), Placheta (5), Rupp (6)