David Freezer's verdict: City should wear their favourites' tag with pride
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
Don't believe the hype. Ignore the noise. Keep your feet on the ground. These are phrases that Norwich City's players and supporters are going to hear a lot of in the months ahead.
Cardiff boss Neil Harris had another attempt at buttering up the leaders ahead of a Boxing Day battle at Watford which would leave City frustrated and immediately desperate to prove it had just been a blip.
"I think Norwich, from what I saw the other day, are a cut above in the league this year," Harris had said, asked for his reflections on the Bluebirds' 2-0 loss at Carrow Road prior to Christmas, ahead of a 3-2 home defeat to another promotion hopeful in Brentford on Saturday.
"I thought they were better than Leeds last year. The praise that Leeds took last year was immense - I think Norwich are better from what I’ve seen, watching them at the weekend but also watching their previous five games."
Genuine words they may well have been but that was the consequence of the Canaries all of a sudden taking a commanding lead at the Championship summit, emerging as the leaders of a strong pack, placing a nice big target on their backs before the season has even reached the halfway point.
Daniel Farke's strong squad is gradually recovering full strength after an injury crisis and now they are there to be shot at, their rivals united in pouring on the praise in the hope of prompting some over-confidence and complacency from a group of players which clearly always had the potential to be a promotion force after top-flight relegation.
So much so that when one of the other teams relegated from the Premier League set up to face City on Boxing Day, new manager Xisco Munoz was taking few chances.
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The Spanish former Valencia winger who had recently led Dinamo Tbilisi to the title in Georgia went for a good, old fashioned 4-4-2 formation, made defensive strength the priority and gambled on the attacking assets he had just inherited being able to find a goal on the counter-attack.
Mixed with the enthusiasm of players trying to impress their new manager it proved to be a wise set-up, thwarting Norwich enough to deny Teemu Pukki space and largely restrict the attacking midfield triumvirate of Todd Cantwell, Kieran Dowell and Emi Buendia to hopeful long-range shots.
City may well have had 65 per cent of possession and 16 shots to Watford's five but it was a physically strong home side which had the game's best chances, with the awkward threat of £30million winger Ismaila Sarr giving Jacob Sorensen a torrid evening as he continued as cover at left-back.
Farke has already mapped out, on several occasions, that expectations are markedly different from two years ago. That Canaries fans were so disappointed to lose just 1-0 to an undoubted promotion rival shows how well they have kicked on since the shaky opening weeks of the campaign.
When even the better teams in the division are setting up to thwart rather than dictate, that is a vindication of the attacking threat that this group possesses.
Perhaps this disjointed display will mark the closing of a chapter though, the start of the next part of this Championship adventure.
The likes of Tim Krul, Ben Gibson, Xavi Quintilla, Lukas Rupp, Przemek Placheta and Jordan Hugill will all hope to be pushing for starting places soon. Sam Byram, Onel Hernandez and Adam Idah also hope to be back in the mix next month.
This season, perhaps more than any before, is a squad game. The likes of Sorensen, Michael McGovern, Christoph Zimmermann and Josh Martin all played big parts in the recent surge to the top of the table which has lifted expectations. Now perhaps fresh legs and minds can pick up the baton and keep the yellow and green machine motoring towards the finish line.
That Farke - barring another injury downturn - is now having several selection issues to weigh up ahead of this week's home games against QPR and Barnsley brings a different dynamic, from the relative comfort of still sitting four points clear and definitely starting 2021 as Championship leaders.
City are still just above that magic mark of averaging two points per game and have exactly as many points (43) as the eventual title winners of 2018-19 had after 21 matches.
They're also preparing to face a struggling QPR team with just one win in their last 11 matches and just two goals scored in their last six games. For weeks now Canaries supporters have been hoping to see their team make a statement, to finally win a game comfortably.
That hope continues despite this frustrating defeat, thanks to the belief built during just two losses in the last 17 matches. That is about more than results though. City were still playing to their style and dominating a promotion rival, their attacking arsenal just didn't quite fire.
Teams have a good idea of what to expect from the leaders now but are enough of them able to stop Norwich when they're in full flight? Watford worked extremely hard for their three points but have added plenty of fuel to the fire for this week's return to Carrow Road action.